Can Brits Really be Educated About Disability?
Synopsis: Scope reports that around 67% of British people feel so awkward and uncomfortable around disabled people that they avoid any form of contact at all.1
Author: Paul Dodenhoff
Published: 2015-08-18 Updated: 2015-10-05
Scope is a one of the UK's most respected disability charities, a charity who does marvelous work with disabled people and their families. Scope is also very hot on the research side of things, particularly in conducting surveys concerning attitudes towards disability. Time and time again within the UK we often hear the old 'establishment' mantra that attitudes towards disability has improved and keeps on improving. Yeah and pigs might fly, as they say. To emphasize that last statement, Scope recently competed another survey in May this year called 'Current attitudes towards disabled people' and again, the results don't make good reading.
Scope reports that around 67% of British people feel so awkward and uncomfortable around disabled people that they avoid any form of contact at all. 48% of people have never started a conversation with a disabled person. 76% have never invited a disabled person to a social occasion. Only 16% have invited somebody disabled into their home, and only 5% have asked out or been out on a date with a disabled person. Scope concluded that not enough people know near enough as they should about disability and these figures are a consequence of that lack of information and contact. So, in conjunction with a British television channel, Scope has released a series of short educational movies in order to educate people. Our national media have been extremely on the ball in playing up this angle of the research.
However, a deeper look at the report highlights negative attitudes towards disability that haven't so readily made the pages of our national media. Attitudes that indicate a society so dominated by prejudice towards disability that it greatly impacts upon the lives of disabled people on a daily basis, and in many different ways. Scope reports:
"There is a growing body of evidence to indicate that disabled people are more likely than people who aren't disabled to experience the attitudes of others as a major barrier to education, leisure, transport, access to public services, social contact and accessibility outside the home"
"Nearly four in ten (38%) people surveyed think of disabled people as less productive than non-disabled people, over three quarters (76%) think of disabled people as needing to be cared for, and 13% think of disabled people as getting in the way some or most of the time".
"When dealing with members of the public, half (49%) of disabled people said that they had talked to someone who didn't believe they were disabled "
Lack of education or a simple lack of respect?
This new report has understandably sparked media debate about why able-bodied people like myself should feel awkward or uncomfortable around disability - while deftly avoiding some of the more disturbing elements of the report, such as why so many of the able-bodied view physically disabled people as potential 'fakes'.
Perhaps I am just one of those rare breed of Brits who has never really felt awkward or uncomfortable around anybody - abled-bodied, disabled, male, female, gay, straight, black, brown, white, green or orange. I have never felt in need of 'educating' in order to treat another human being with some basic level of respect and civility. For sure, in a world that is hard enough to survive in as it is, do we really need to make life harder for each other by making some people feel like c**p, and primarily because they may look slightly different or behave slightly different from the masses. Life would certainly be quite dull if we all looked exactly the same and all behaved in the same manner, wouldn't it?
One assumption that has come out of the media debate centers on the argument that making disabled people feel like c**p is merely unintentional and primarily motivated by feeling 'uncomfortable' around disability itself (by not knowing what to say or do). It's an old argument that I have heard many disabled people themselves use in order to explain away obnoxious behavior. However, it's an argument that also suggests that the abled-bodied are primarily good natured, and just wary about not drawing attention to the disability somebody may have, or being simply afraid of saying the 'wrong thing'.
However, if Scope had been investigating attitudes towards Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality or Religion instead of attitudes towards disability, and had produced the very same survey results, would the media debate generated by the survey been quite so laid back and understanding about White or Straight people actively avoiding Black people or Gay people? I'm quite sure that feeling awkward or uncomfortable around Black people, Gay people or even Jewish people would not have been offered as an excuse for actions that 'exclude' and 'marginalize' millions of people from any type of meaningful social interaction, education, employment, welfare, social services or transport. We would certainly have had media uproar if a survey on attitudes towards Race, Religion or Sexuality had signaled that during social interaction, Black people or Gay people often felt that they were being treated as deviants and liars.
Ignorance or Prejudice?
I remember reading a newspaper article by Dr Tom Shakespeare many years ago that pretty much concluded the same thing as the debate around the Scope survey - that simple ignorance and lack of knowledge drives negative behavior towards disabilities. However, by 2010 even Tom Shakespeare seemed to have had a change of mind. Writing in The Guardian newspaper in March 2010, Dr Shakespeare recounted incidents that made him change his own attitude:
"As a person with restricted growth, all my life I have faced stares and mockery from people. Every day, children stare and laugh at me. If I'm in a city at night, some drunken stranger is sure to hurl abuse. But I have always shrugged my shoulders and followed my father's advice - "just ignore them".
"Two things changed my attitude. One night, coming home from Newcastle on the Tyne and Wear metro, a group of young women came and sat around me at the front of the train. As they started to harass me, asking facetious questions and making lewd comments, the encounter became increasingly humiliating. For the first time, I felt scared as well as hurt. These girls were probably 14 or 15, they had almost certainly been drinking or taking drugs, and they had no compunction at all about making me the butt of their games. Nobody on the train intervened. I felt very shaken by the time I got off the metro, and very relieved indeed that my abusers decided not follow me into the deserted car park".
"Deeply unpleasant though this episode was, I classed it as bullying, rather than hate crime. From my research with disabled children in schools, I was well aware that bullying was a constant feature of their lives, in both mainstream and segregated settings. Later research with people with restricted growth confirmed that nasty words and harassment were a common experience. My response was to argue for better disability equality education in schools, so as to challenge negative attitudes. I still felt that the term "hate crime" was overstated and that violence was rare. The research evidence was scanty, and I thought the problem was exaggerated".
"It was only when I was interviewed by a group of media students who were making a documentary film about hate crime, that I realized how wrong I was to downplay the seriousness of this very British problem. They challenged my complacency and forced me to question my attitude. I heard from them about the everyday stories of hate crime that they had investigated. I realized that these forms of violence were mostly directed towards people with intellectual disabilities".
"Later, I asked several colleagues who work as advocates and supporters of people with intellectual disability about what they knew. They confirmed immediately that harassment was a constant feature of the lives of every person they worked with. They told me about conferences and gatherings where people had shared horrific experiences, which to them were commonplace. People being cello-taped to trees while people laughed, people being urinated on, people who had dog feces put through their letter boxes, people who were beaten up. Faced with this constant exposure to the risk of abuse and violence, people with intellectual disability remained stoical and uncomplaining. Sometimes they were unable to make a complaint. Often, they were disbelieved, or were not taken seriously as witnesses. In most cases, the police were unwilling or unable to take effective action"
(The Guardian, 12 th March 2010
After reading that harrowing account of 'hate' written by an eminent scholar, can we really be confident that it is just feeling 'uncomfortable' around disability that motivates some abled-bodied people to avoid disability all together. Certainly, feeling uncomfortable may be a strong enough feeling that makes you want to avoid certain situations. But are we only fooling ourselves and effectively making up excuses for behavior that may be less about ignorance, and much more to do with some people being totally unable to interact socially with disabled people without feeling the urge to marginalize, dominate or oppress? And simply to appease their own personal agenda.
As Dr Shakespeare's account highlights, not everybody actively avoids disability and instead, some people seem to take great delight in taking the opportunity to make another human being feel like something you have just trodden in.
So, should I ignore you or bind you to a tree and urinate on you?
We can pick out three quite contradictory but common elements to the way the able-bodied treat disability. Firstly, according to Scope's recent report, many of the able-bodied exclude or ignore the disabled chiefly because they feel 'uncomfortable' or 'awkward' around disability itself and simply don't know how to behave. However, Scope's report indicates that simple ignorance may only be part of the problem. Secondly, according to other types of research, a significant number of the able-bodied seem to actively jump on any available opportunity to act unpleasant and obnoxious to disabled people. Acts committed towards disability that are often argued by the able-bodied as simply 'having a laugh', or by many people (including some disabled people) as simple acts of 'bullying. Finally, there are some people like myself who just try to treat everybody the same, with some level of basic respect for a fellow human being. Something that seems to be generally lacking when the able-bodied meet disabled people.
Recently, I was traveling by rail on a busy route at 'rush- hour'. The train was about three-quarters full and as it pulled in at another busy station, a family with a disabled child in a wheelchair attempted to board the train helped by a member of the station's staff. However, one well-dressed, middle aged man began to push through and shout at the member of staff, arguing that he and all the other passengers should be allowed to board the train first. Despite the fact that other doors where available to board the train simply by walking a few yards further down the platform, the man was determined to get onto the train via the door that was being used for disabled access, and simply because he said that he 'needed to be somewhere' .
Did this man simply need educating about disability? He was certainly ignorant by not realizing that all those other people on the train or attempting to get on the train also needed to be somewhere (including the disabled child in the wheel chair). Or in reality was he just a jumped up, self-important, selfish little nobody who thought he was better than everybody else and therefore expected to receive preferential treatment? One young man standing next to him (and somebody unconnected to the family) certainly thought so and 'offered' to educate the selfish individual by punching him in the face. However, other passengers simply kept their heads bowed low, and did not get involved.
So, is it really a lack of information?
The recent Scope report and its recommendation that the British public need to be educated about disability should certainly be taken up. Misunderstanding disability is certainly a problem, particularly as people tend to conflate physical disability with mental disability or confuse mental disability with mental health issues. Ignorance is certainly an issue but it may only be a tiny part of the problem, not the main problem.
As a researcher, one of the problems with directly asking people about their attitudes or their underlying motivations for behavior, is that it is not always easy to get a truthful response. People generally want to manage how they come across to others and primarily want to be perceived in a positive light, particularly to researchers who are documenting those very thoughts and words. Since 'disability' can be diverse and wide ranging, not having a conversation with a disabled person, never inviting a disabled person to a social occasion or even into your home, may be less to do with actually feeling awkward or uncomfortable around disability, and much more to do with feelings that are motivated by deep-rooted prejudice. For example, believing that somebody with a disability is a 'fake' cannot be put down to ignorance alone.
Prejudice towards disability has been around for a very time, and can surface at any point and in any situation. Like the man above who was trying to push in front of the disabled child on the train, the disabled are often 'accused' of simply being in the way. Employers may refuse to employ a disabled person simply because they may perceive them as potentially troublesome in terms of health and reliability, or readily conflate physical disability and mental disability. Work colleagues may perceive a disabled worker as 'unproductive'. Children and teenagers may perceive the disabled as potential 'sport'. TV programmers may perceive the disabled as 'entertainment'. And Politician's may view the disabled as a burden on the state.
Therefore, when people go out of their way to avoid contact with disability, can we really be confident that such avoidance methods are only in play because people feel 'uncomfortable'. While it may be the case that some people are indeed frightened of doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing around disabled people, but what can explain disabled people being cello-taped to trees, being urinated on, receiving dog feces through their letter boxes or getting beaten up?
British journalist and writer Katherine Quarmby wrote a book in 2011 on how disabled people get 'scapegoated' within society for all sorts of things. Most recently we have seen Britain's disabled being scapegoated for being benefit frauds and cheats, an intentional political ploy used in order to sell welfare reform to the wider British Public - while diverting attention from the activities of the financial sector that caused the last global economic recession.
Scapegoating effectively works to create negative social stereotypes that blame certain social groups for problems within society, becoming an easy to understand way for people to make sense of things that are often in reality, highly complex social problems. For example, the Nazi regime in Germany not only blamed Jewish people for the economic problems Germany faced, but painted them as a deviant and inferior 'race'.
Here is a headline from a British newspaper that uses a similar tactic towards disabled people:
"The fake disabled are crippling our economy" - The Telegraph, Jan 26 th 2012
This article was printed previously in The Sun newspaper before being taken up by The Telegraph . However, the journalist involved also wrote blogs for The Spectator where he again targeted the disabled, asking if Britain was becoming prone to 'immoral, lying, cheating, scumbags'?
These notions only add to perception within society that disabled people are not just defective, but also deviant and immoral. Scope's report was readily disseminated by Britain's media, portraying negative behavior towards disability as a rather unintentional and benign phenomena. However, this report actually illuminated that negative attitudes and behavior towards disability are much more than a consequence of the abled-bodied not knowing what to say or how to act around disability. These actions arguably have their origins in deep-rooted social prejudice, and as such, it will take much more than a few short TV movies made to educate people, in order to make that prejudice disappear.
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