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OPINION

One quarter of the public say they avoid talking to me because I’m disabled. Why?

A new study says 25 per cent of Brits find it “uncomfortable” talking to disabled people. It’s depressing, says Frances Ryan

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By Frances Ryan on

Well, this is awkward. A quarter of Brits admit they’ve avoided conversations with disabled people, according to a new study out today. Research by the national disability charity Sense, on behalf of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, also revealed that half of non-disabled people asked believed that they didn’t have “much in common” with disabled people.

I can’t say I’m not depressed by the results. It’s not that I’d convinced myself that Britain had suddenly become completely comfortable with disability. Just last month, as I checked in at a hotel in London, I was ignored to my face. Despite the fact I’d been the one who’d started the conversation with the receptionist (and whose work account the room was paid on), as soon as someone who wasn’t sitting in a wheelchair was in her eyeshot, she decided to ignore me – and switched to talk to the non-disabled person. (In the end, I just sat in the corner and checked some work emails. I thought I might as well make the situation time-efficient.)  

But still, the idea that in 2017 25 per cent of the great British public is so weirded out by disabled people that they’ve actively avoided talking to us is a jolting statistic. That isn’t a random few people – one unpleasant incident here and there. There are 12.9m disabled people in the UK. That’s a huge group of people being ignored on a daily basis by a quarter of the rest of the population.   

The idea that disabled people – ‘other’, pitiable, scary – are fundamentally different to other people is still worryingly prevalent

It was only five years ago this summer that we were celebrating Paralympians and patting ourselves on the back for our progressive acceptance of disability. But, really, how enlightened are we? The study’s phrasing that half of non-disabled people believe they didn’t have “much in common” with disabled people in itself is telling – as if you’re asking what you might have in common with a visiting Martian. The idea that disabled people – “other”, pitiable, scary – are fundamentally different to other people is still worryingly prevalent; the belief that, say, not being able to walk for long distances or see well is a disabled person’s defining characteristic, rather than the complex mix of parts (clever, funny, likes gin) that makes anyone else a human. Unsurprisingly, the study also found that half of disabled people have experienced loneliness. When a quarter of the population are avoiding talking to you, being lonely is an inevitable result.

If we want to start tackling any of this, we have to think about practicalities, as well as attitudes. Bluntly put, it isn’t just the fact that people ignore “the disabled” that’s the problem, but how hard society makes it for disabled people to meet people in the first place. Public transport is still often inaccessible for disabled people, as well as many buildings – anything from pubs, gig venues and sports stadiums to shops. We’re also more likely to be on a low income – which in itself makes it hard to socialise – while people who need a personal assistant for day-to-day help often face huge problems in getting enough care hours to even leave the house. This is only getting worse at a time of huge cuts to disability support and social care.

Besides, attitudes and practicalities aren’t two separate barriers; the fact that disabled people are often shut out from work, social settings and even the media means non-disabled people can go about their day largely without interacting with, or even knowingly seeing, disabled people – which, in turn, further marginalises disability as unfamiliar and “separate”.

Jo Cox famously believed that we have far more in common than that which divides us. This phrase has rarely been more apt than when thinking about disabled people – a group of people seen as so different that a chunk of the public can’t bring themselves to talk to us. Today’s study shows that, when it comes to disability, Britain’s got a long way to go.  

@DrFrancesRyan

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