Guest post by Martyn Sibley, blogger, campaigner and co-founder of Disability Horizons magazine. Martyn has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a motorised wheelchair. He spends much of his time travelling the globe and is currently spending three months in Spain.
I find awkwardness comes in a few different forms. Some people are very wary around disabled people, and often people don’t engage with you at all because they’re afraid they might do or say the wrong thing.
In social settings, however – especially where there’s a bit of alcohol involved – people tend to become over-helpful, and you get a lot of unwanted attention. One (rather drunk) guy was so keen to help me onto the bus at the end of a night that he ended up breaking the wheelchair ramp at 2am. Everyone on the bus had to get off and wait half an hour for the next bus, which was very awkward for everyone, and me especially.
Or people will accidentally be patronising, saying things like ‘It’s great to see you out…’ I’ve had a few nights out where someone has tried to take me under their wing as a kind of Good Samaritan, even though I don’t need help and am clearly enjoying myself with friends.
Some of the awkwardness comes from what you might call ‘process barriers’. If I can’t get onto a bus or train because the ramp isn’t working, or there aren’t enough staff to operate it, that’s not the fault of my impairment – it’s the fault of the process that’s been put in place.
I travel a lot, and normally when I’m taking a plane, I’ll get on before the other passengers. However, often the airline doesn’t pull its finger out, and I’ll end up being carried onto the plane and wheeled down the aisle with everyone watching. Because I can’t hold my head up without support, I look different from when I’m settled in my chair, and it gives completely the wrong impression of me. It’s embarrassing for me – and what’s more, it reinforces the impression that disabled people are ‘different’ in some way. And that means people will keep feeling awkward.
Ending the awkward
I’ve been on a bit of a journey over the course of my life in how I feel about awkwardness. When I was younger, I hated any kind of special attention – now, I’ve realised that sometimes it can lead to genuinely interesting conversations, and new connections.
Disabled people have a part to play too in ending the awkward. It’s about accepting that sometimes some people feel awkward, and being confident enough in your own skin to defuse their embarrassment. I try never to take offence where offence isn’t intended, and humour is a great coping strategy.
And I’ve found that just being out there and living life to the full is the best way of educating people about disability. Going out, getting drunk, having fun, pulling doughnuts on the dance floor in my wheelchair – it’s a good way of breaking down those barriers without even trying.