Our new report, The Disability Perception Gap, reveals the extent of the negative attitudes that are held towards disabled people – and how many non-disabled people don’t realise the scale of the problem.
In this guest blog, Abbi, who has brittle bones, talks about her life as a young disabled woman – which is far from prejudice free – and why it’s vital that the public recognise this.
It’s May 2018, and my friends and I are on a university reunion weekend in Cambridge, dancing the night away in our favourite shabby student nightclub. As always, my being disabled is a practical consideration of the night – my friends are well-trained in lifting my wheelchair up steps, or dancing in a protective circle if the club is particularly crowded – but beyond that, I’m just part of the group.
Until suddenly, I’m not.
First, I notice a group of boys with a phone camera trained on me, laughing. The boy holding the phone turns the screen to his friend, who laughs too. In the centre of the screen is a video of me, dancing. I shrug it off.
Just as I’m beginning to forget the incident, a man leans down to my shoulder. If I were non-disabled, I might think he was going to offer me a drink, or warn me I’ve got my skirt tucked into my knickers, but as a young disabled woman in 2018, I know exactly what’s coming.
“I just want to say,” he shouts, “I think you’re really inspiring…”
I live my life under the scrutiny of strangers
It’s been four years since Scope’s last report on public perceptions of disability, and I’ve been dancing in that Cambridge club for all of them. Perceptions have changed – but not enough. Disabled people continue to be stereotyped either scroungers, raking in benefits without contributing to society; or inspirations, overcoming all odds to bravely struggle to the shops (and maybe winning a few Paralympic medals along the way).
I’ve lost count of the number of times total strangers have unexpectedly started pushing my wheelchair along streets or across roads, apparently never considering how I would have appeared there in the first place, had I not been able to push myself. I’ve been ‘brave’ in supermarkets and ‘inspiring’ at bus stops; I’ve also been ‘faking it’ in a Blue Badge parking space, and ‘milking it’ at a train station.
I live my life under the near-constant scrutiny of strangers – yet, according to Scope’s recent study, only 22 per cent of non-disabled people still feel there is a lot of prejudice against disabled people, compared with 32 per cent of disabled people.
Until people acknowledge the persistence of prejudice, nothing will change
It’s true that, in theory at least, the UK is becoming more disability-friendly. Accessibility information is often clearly advertised on websites for theatres and events; job applications often reference the employer’s commitment to equality; high-profile court cases such as Doug Paulley’s case against FirstGroup suggest that disabled people can go anywhere, achieve anything.
In practice, even where buses and trains are accessible, wheelchair users continue to be refused access because the designated spaces are filled with luggage or pushchairs. Disabled people have to apply to an average of 60% more jobs than non-disabled people. People with invisible disabilities continue to be berated for using accessible services, or reported to fraud prevention hotlines (despite disability benefit fraud rates standing at under 1% – the lowest of any benefit). Even my own doctors are often surprised that my wheelchair is self-funded, wrongly assuming – like many non-disabled people – that the NHS provides appropriate wheelchairs for free.
It’s easy to see how non-disabled people might believe we live in a largely ‘disability-friendly’ country. The reality is starkly different – as disabled people, and their friends and families, know all too well. And until the non-disabled population recognises the persistence of prejudiced or unequal behaviours, attitudes and systems towards their disabled counterparts, it is impossible for the balance to change.
This report is the start of something, not the end. We will be working to better understand how negative attitudes impact on disabled people, and how these can best be tackled.
There’s no single fix for this problem, and as part of our campaign for everyday equality for disabled people, we’d like to hear about your experiences and what you would like to see change.