Recently I read a piece by the former Deputy Editor of The Independent, Ian Birrell, written on the day after gay marriage was legalised in the UK. Birrell, whose daughter is profoundly disabled, remarked that whilst gay rights have marched forwards at an extraordinary and wonderful rate the treatment of people with disabilities has gotten worse.
Whilst I can’t agree that we’re in a worse place than we were a century and a half ago when the disabled poor were sent to work houses (or the 1960s when children with autism were electrocuted for research), I do see his point. ‘Accessibility’ wasn’t exactly a consideration in the Victorian era- no wheelchair ramps or braille menus- but at least there was the general feeling that those in need were to be taken care of.
From the early 20th century attitude that a disabled person was seen to have suffered a misfortune and deserved charity to the birth of the national health and disabled people taking charge of their own narrative to… a generalized bad feeling nowadays about ‘scroungers’ and dependents
I even find myself, despite being a blogger who talks openly about her disabilities and having them coded into my very DNA, panicking before opening any DWP letter that they’re going to claim I’m not disabled after all- just useless. I recently had my PIP reassessed (which seems like a waste of time and money since I was awarded an indefinite DLA but that’s a rant for another time…) and was absolutely terrified that the response would be I’m just a waste of space and could get better if I ‘really wanted to’. Why do I have these thoughts? Because that’s something I’ve been told in the past; if I really wanted to get better I’d be able compensate for missing a gene.
Missing a gene, people! A gene!
Putting aside that bone stupid lack of scientific understanding… it’s the government’s control of the narrative to justify their harsh spending cuts that have created this atmosphere. Birrell notes in his article that deep spending cuts are locking disabled people out of society, effectively turning us into second-class citizens and leaving this minority as one that cannot progress to acceptance at the rate of others.
As a disabled human and general good person I’m not a fan of the government’s spending cuts, but the lesbian part of me will loudly applaud them for making gay marriage legal. As Birrell points out, we can praise politicians of all hues “for displaying courage in confronting the misanthropes who sought to stop lesbian and gay people from enjoying rights that the rest take for granted.” Four years ago my marriage wasn’t legal, ten years ago my gayness could mean I was legally refused service in a shop, fourteen years ago it couldn’t be talked about in schools, twenty five years ago my attraction was a ‘mental illness’ according to the World Health Organisation, thirty seven years ago homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland and fifty years ago people like me were jailed across the UK.
Basically, don’t read the timeline of LGBT history in the UK on Wikipedia. It will depress you.
Yet, whilst the country is busy rejoicing at the speed with which people who were once held against their will and mocked are now everyday normality in society… are they missing the growing bias against another group? Birrell writes that amid the “self-congratulatory talk of tolerance, one minority remains stuck in the shadows of society” and from my own experience I would certainly agree.
A survey from the disability charity Scope reports that whilst in 1994 “just over a third of disabled people said they experienced verbal abuse” with a similar number refused service in a public place today half of disabled people report the same. We’re proven to be the most loyal employees yet struggle to find work- and keep it! Two thirds of people who develop a disability loose their job within two years. Sadly I can’t, off the top of my head, think of a disabled person I know who doesn’t have a tale of routine harassment or ableism. Most people I explain this to seem surprised since if you don’t personally know someone who has a disability or have no experience of the benefits system it must seem very easy to you rather than the complex and draining process it is.
Other than occasionally being made to feel uncomfortable I’ve never faced harassment for my sexuality- and I know in that I’m privileged- but I do have to listen to people in positions of power (and even some of my friends) come out with anti-disability slurs and opinions that are genuinely shocking to me. The entire concept of a ‘fake disability’ baffles me… how?! How on earth would faking such a thing be possible?! Also: why? Believe me, the benefits are not that great.
I understand how people come to this conclusion however as annoyingly one of the things that separates our minority from others is that we are more isolated since it can be hard to socialise and thus get our voices heard on a personal level. Equally, it isn’t exactly easy to have them heard on a nation-wide level when around two thirds of polling stations have significant barriers to accessibility and the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEO), set up to help disabled candidates meet their extra costs of running for office, has been…. quietly ‘put on hold’.
Digital technology helps to bridge gaps- I love it when viewers on my YouTube channel say they’ve learnt something new about disabled people!- but it can only do so much to change the, as Birrell says, “befuddled British embarrassment at best, coldness at worst, towards people with disabilities.”
It’s the last line of the article that hits hardest with me and perhaps resonates because it’s something I like to say often (not in a mean way… but… yes mainly to people who are struggling to understand what I’m upset about): “only one in six people with disabilities was born with them; one day this minority might include you, whatever your colour, gender or sexuality.”