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Paralympian v 'normal' disabled person - have attitudes really changed.....?
With the announcement that the gold medal winning amputee athlete Johnny Peacock was to be the first disabled celebrity to enter Strictly Come Dancing, the Paralympics held last year in Rio de Janeiro, the World Para Athletics Championships held in London earlier this year and last week, we would be forgiven for thinking that attitudes towards people with disabilities would be changing but according to a leading disabilities charity, we've still got a long way to go.
A recent survey by the charity Scope found 38% of disabled people felt attitudes had not improved towards them since 2012. Some 28% of the people surveyed said the Paralympics had not delivered a "positive legacy for disabled people", while three-quarters (75%) had not seen improvements in the way members of the public talk to them. (HuffPost 25/08/17)
So why am I as a wheelchair user, completely not surprised by their findings?
Is it because, in my experience, that the world now seems to have split the 'disabled community' into two completely different camps?
In Camp 1, the amazing, dedicated, hardworking athletes who do their country proud, train hard and overcome their disability to achieve greatness. These people are exalted (quite rightly!), praised, called, "extraordinary", "amazing" and "inspirational".
In Camp 2 sits the rest of us, the 'normal' disabled people who just get on with things on a day to day basis but do not achieve greatness, cannot train hard due to pain, fatigue or anxiety and sometimes struggle to get through the day. We are not praised or exalted, we are the "scroungers", the "lazy", the "feckless" and the "workshy".
The word 'overcome' intrigues me; it is not simply a matter of 'overcoming' your disability if your chronic pain is there 24 hours a day and just managing to get out of bed and dress is the best you can do on most days of the week. You cannot 'overcome' your anxiety just by well meaning people telling you to breathe slowly into a brown paper bag. To 'overcome' by dictionary definition does mean to "get the better of", to "aim mastery over" and to "defeat" - all of which suggest that there is some choice here. You can choose to overcome your disability or you can choose not to and be labelled as lazy.
But it also means to be "overwhelmed", to be "struck" and to be "affected"; all of which convey a meaning that there is no choice. We are not lazy if we are too "affected" by our condition to work or do anything other than get through our day. In fact, that is our own small achievement, we have done the outmost that we can possibly do and we have succeeded.
But in my experience watching the world around me and the way in which people with disabilities are portrayed by the media, we are definitely still placed into one of the two camps. Paralympic athletes pose nude in the Sunday Supplements and we jealousy view and long for their honed bodies. Unfortunately, those same publications see no issue with then interviewing someone with a chronic mental illness who invariably doesn't look the same. If as disabled people, we are overweight due to the weight gain caused by our medication (I put on 2 stone after taking one of mine) or by our inability to move as much as we'd like, then we are looked down upon. A friend of mine with mobility issues dreads using her mobility scooter as she thinks that people think she is one of those lazy people who are too fat to walk.
As a wheelchair user due to chronic pain, I find the self same discrimination within my own social circle. They sometimes make comments about the appearance of a disabled person in the news and make assumptions about them based on their appearance. When I jump in to challenge them, they respond with "but you're different, you always look clean and presentable" but they completely forget the hours it takes to look 'acceptable' and the amount of hours I spend looking completely different when the pain overwhelms me and it's too difficult to do anything.
If we cannot work due to our health issues, we are labelled as workshy and feckless; the attitudes of people who deal with our benefit issues are sometimes dismissive and disbelieving. People still believe that to get these benefits, all you have to do is turn up, feign a 'bad back', go back home and collect your 'winnings'. Not at all! Many of the questions they ask in our regular assessments are degrading and insensitive but when we answer honestly, there is always that split second when we get 'the look' from the assessor - we can almost feel them thinking "really?". It's embarrassing enough to have to admit that some days you can't even move enough to wipe your own a*#e but to then have to have someone raise an enquiring eyebrow before moving on to the next embarrassing question is horrific.
So do I think that attitudes towards disabled people have changed since the increased exposure of disability issues in our world's media?
In some respects I think, yes they have. We now have better access, ramps and widened doorways, Braille and hearing loops in theatres and many other adaptions for us to live an equal life and these adaptations have become widely accepted as essential in our more disability aware world. But do I think that the long held, ingrained attitudes towards us have changed alongside these adaptations? No, I'm sorry to say I don't think so; we still are seen as 'different' somehow and along with different goes all those words I used earlier. Increased exposure to 'normal' disabled people is essential if we are to change things further, people like me and my peers can show that we have every bit as much to contribute as everyone else; that we are all 'super' in our own way.