I’ve just found out that SCOPE is running a brand new campaign called End The Awkward. According to them, 67% of Brits feel uncomfortable talking to people with a disability. Part of their campaign is a whole lot of really useful tips and clear answers to questions that might run through the mind of someone who is meeting a disabled person for the first time. While I think SCOPE is really onto something here, I can’t help thinking they’ve maybe missed a bit of a trick.
It’s great they’re trying to help people to feel more at ease around disability but not everyone is going to visit their site. There are always going to be people who make wrong assumptions, feel uncomfortable and get the urge to ask awkward questions. What SCOPE has missed, and what I personally am in very much need of, is advice on how disabled people should react to able bodied people, especially when they get it wrong.
I’ve said before in this blog that I, personally, am not much of a social animal, especially with people I don’t know well, so when I meet someone who is clearly not use to dealing with disabled people I don’t know how to deal with them. A lot my issues come from the fact that I have quite a bad speech defect and just getting across what I need to say is sometimes a Hell of a task.
For instance, could someone, either from SCOPE or just with a greater grasp of social etiquette than me, tell me the proper, polite way to react when someone very kindly, but very patronisingly talks down to you? This has happened to me all my life and I still don’t know how to react. The first option is to just ignore it but that’s no good because a) the person will assume they’ve got it right and never know any better and b) it makes me quietly resent someone who is trying their best and that resentment builds up until I tend to react in the second way. The second way is this, sarcasm. I am constantly told that I am very sarcastic. So much so I genuinely cannot pay my Mum a compliment without her thinking I’m taking the Mick. Sarcasm is a great stress reliever for me as it allows me to vent my frustrations right in the person’s face and half the time they don’t realise how bitchy I’m being. But sarcasm is a bit like picking a scab, it feels great at the time but is often counterproductive as people either are completely oblivious to it or come away thinking that I’m, and therefore all disabled people, are nasty.
You could always cut all pretence, look the person straight in the eye and say, ‘Look, I don’t have a learning disability and even if I did you shouldn’t talk to me like I’m a child, thank you.’ But like the phrase ‘I’m not a racist,’ having to explain to someone what you’re not, I think, makes them more likely to believe you are. I mean, what kind of idiot goes round saying ‘I’m not an idiot’? I use to think I had the perfect solution. I thought that if I just used my large vocabulary in conversation people would think, ‘wow she sounds really clever, I’d better not patronise her.’ But then I got to know people who were articulate but not that bright and realised showing people you sounded clever didn’t mean you were, case in point Russell Brand.
Then there are the occasions when people talk to the person with you instead of you. This happens to me a lot, mainly because, like I say, I have really unclear speech. It happens to me so much that I actually have come to consider it normal and I get more awkward when people talk to me and not my Mum. That’s not normal, is it? For a woman my age to freak out a bit when she has to talk to a stranger? I’m so not use to it that I actually struggle to put a sentence together because I’m worrying whether the person is understanding what I’m saying. I know it’s lazy but there’s part of me that’s glad when people talk to the person I’m with instead of me, it let’s me duck out of all the trickiness of being understood. But how can I then moan about the fact I’m not involved in the conversation?
But the thing that bothers me most of all is staring, especially from kids. I think it’s because I feel adults should know better but children are naturally curious and not aware they’re being impolite. Part of me feels that as a disabled person it’s my responsibility to show the younger generations that we’re just like other people, so whenever I see a child looking at me I try to smile and say hello. That is, however, when I’m feeling in a particular cheery, altruistic mood. But there are days when you just want to have a coffee or a meal out without feeling like the two headed woman escaped from the freak show. It’s quite endearing when a little kid smiles and waves back at you, you feel like you’ve reached out and made them see you’re not a scary monster after all. But there are some little bug……. bundles of sweetness who aren’t happy with a shy glance from behind mum’s legs, who just stare and keep staring, swizzle round in their seat to get a better look.
I remember one time I was on holiday with a group of disabled friends. We were in a hotel’s lobby-cum lounge bit, watching a cabaret, sitting at a long table. On the other side of the room there was a family with a six year old girl. This kid repeatedly walked away from her parents, all the way across the dance floor until she was about three feet away from us and just stared, like Eddie the dog out of Frasier. Then she moved along to the next person and did the same to them. She did this every night of our stay. Every night. It got so bad that a young lad who was helping us had to be restrained by his aunt (another carer) from dragging her back to her parents and giving them a piece of his mind. On the one hand, I can’t blame him but then it’s never a good idea to go round disciplining other people’s children. On another holiday, I was riding down in a lift with a little girl and her grandma. She was looking at me and I, being relaxed and having a good time decided to humour her, saying what a pretty dress she was wearing. Then she turned to her grandma and with pure innocence in her eyes said, ‘Nanny, why does that lady talk funny?’ Obviously, ‘Nanny’ looked like she wished the ground would swallow her and I was left feeling like someone had just used my heart as a punch bag. But you can’t blame the child for not understanding and what answer can you give?
So, going back to SCOPE and End The Awkward. I’m putting out a challenge to anyone reading this blog. Communication is a two way street and if anyone, disabled or able bodied, can tell me how to deal with situations like the ones I’ve described please post them in the comment section below, because I’m running out of ideas.