On the train the other day, I was with my son having a natter about the weekend, as you do; nothing different there, except we were using British Sign Language to communicate as wearing my cochlear implant (which helps me to hear sound) is uncomfortable on trains.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a little girl who couldn’t be much older than 5, peering around her chair staring at me. Before I could do so much as wave back she had been pulled away by who I assumed was her mother. I thought nothing of it until they left their seat, the mother’s face redder than a beetroot, dragging her daughter after her down the carriage whilst putting her hand up and mouthing ‘sorry’, before disappearing. Nathan, my son then proceeded to tell me that the little girl had asked why we were waving our hands around funnily, to which her mother had told her to ‘be quiet and not be rude’. I can only assume that the mother realised that Nathan is able to hear (maybe his earphones were a give-away) and was embarrassed.
I thought nothing more of it at the time because Nathan distracted me with his talk about his Xbox and his plans for the summer. When relaxing in the bath that night, (where all my thinking happens as it’s the only place where I can be undisturbed, and even that isn’t guaranteed) I reflected upon what had actually happened. You see, I think that the whole situation was a crying shame. This isn’t the first time I have witnessed a parent uncomfortable and telling off their child for being ‘rude’ for asking questions and looking at someone who has a disability, and it won’t be the last. Children have a natural curiosity. They want to know about the world around them and can be very direct in their questions. I have lost count the number of times a child has asked me what the ‘funny thing in my ear’ is. I can honestly say I have never once been offended and am happy to answer their questions. You see, it’s my belief that half of the barriers that we (disabled adults) face are caused by the lack of communication around disability.
People are so scared of saying the wrong thing or causing offence that it becomes the elephant in the room. Furthermore I believe that this fear is installed into children from a young age. Every time a question remains unanswered and they are chastised for being rude, at the same time picking up on the embarrassment that their parent (or teacher or whoever they are with) displays, this fear and embarrassment becomes ingrained within them.
How different would the world be if children’s questions were answered without embarrassment and they grew up to be comfortable around disabled people? I for one think that changing attitudes towards disability starts with the next generation – these children who have a thirst for knowledge. That is why I am incredibly proud of the work that we at Enhance the UK do with our disability awareness workshops for children. We provide children and young people with a safe place where they can ask these questions without fear of a negative reaction. We enable them to see that disabled people are no different from themselves, except for the fact that they have an impairment and that this impairment isn’t the grand sum of who that person is. It isn’t something to be afraid of and it isn’t something which anyone should be embarrassed about. If we can teach the next generation to feel comfortable discussing disability in a sensitive way then we will remove so many barriers that we face.
If you would work with groups of children, whether in a school or a club, and would like more information on our workshops please look on our website here.