Guest post from Jo Davies, who is Campaigns Lead at Mencap.
Most campaigning organisations want to change society’s attitudes in some way or another. For an organisation like Mencap – which is working towards a society where people with a learning disability are valued equally, listened to and included – it is one of the main things we want to do. Our reasons are simple: most people don’t know much about learning disability – or any kind of disability – and this lack of knowledge leads to all sorts of misconceptions, uneasiness and prejudice.
Let me give you an example. I was telling some friends of mine about going to my colleague’s hen do, without much intrigue, until I mentioned that the hen had a learning disability. This group of well-educated, open-minded (and also very nice) people was totally unaware that someone with a learning disability would want to, or even could be allowed to, get married.
It’s no wonder that so many people lack awareness or understanding of what having a disability is like – the ‘average’ person will not go to school, work, or live alongside someone with a disability. So there is no reason why they should know, or want to know, much about these people who are invisible in their world. And this invisibility makes it possible for huge numbers of disabled people to be victims of hate crime, to die needlessly in the NHS, and to have their financial and social care support stripped away, without much opposition from most people.
So what can we – as an organisation, as a sector and as a society do to change this? There is of course no easy answer to this question, and no simple solution to this very complex problem. While we must focus some of our efforts on long-term change, part of our job must also be to challenge attitudes towards disabled people that aren’t what they should be in the here and now.
At Mencap we recently found ourselves responding to two separate incidents of vitriolic anti-disability sentiment from one would-be and one current local councillor, both advocating that disabled children should be killed – or not allowed to be born – because they cost taxpayers too much money and were a burden on their family and the state. As you can probably imagine, it was hard to put into words just how we felt at hearing such hateful views. But rather than fight fire with fire and spread the hate, we encouraged people to respond on social media with messages of love and strength: parents sharing stories of how much joy and pride their disabled children bring to their lives, adults with a learning disability writing blogs on the contribution they make to their families, workplaces and communities, all using #notaburden. Thousands of people took part in the discussion on Facebook and Twitter, and potentially hundreds of thousands of people saw the tweets and posts.
This was such a powerful way to refute the uninformed and hugely insulting comments, putting real disabled children and their families at the heart of the outrage. It also gave us the opportunity to give uninitiated people an insight into the life of a dad, aunt or sister of a disabled person, with one clear message: ‘I wouldn’t change it for the world’. While this alone may not have had a big impact on society, it is an example of how negative attitudes can be challenged and positive attitudes instilled. All it took was people with real experience of disability – disabled people, their family and friends – to give others a glimpse into their lives, and let them see for themselves.
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