Most Britons say they’ve never had a disabled person over for a social occasion – but are they sure they know?
I bought a house this week. This has entailed months of research into access solutions, which are painful not just because they cost more than almost everything else I own combined. Stairlifts, for example. It took a while to resolve the cognitive dissonance of using a piece of equipment most famously associated with Thora Hird – I’m 32 – but it seems that having access to my own bedroom is a higher priority than how ridiculous I look on the four-minute mechanised ride up there. More frustrating is the absurdity of how to get up to my front door during the six-week wait for ramp installation.
So I wasn’t too astounded at last week’s research from Scope, in which a large majority of those surveyed said they had never had a disabled person to their home for a social occasion. For me this mainly produced brief trepidation that I’m about to be invited over by dozens of non-disabled friends, all of whom might forget, in their enthusiasm for increasingly diverse dinner parties, that I can access none of their houses. Scope interprets these findings as evidence of social exclusion, but I’m more interested in what they show about how our society still conceptualises disability. Can you be sure whether you’ve entertained a disabled person in your home? We don’t all come with identifying wheelchairs or white sticks, and our friends with mental health problems might not be willing to share their health status. With 11 million disabled people living in this country, it’s unlikely that non-disabled people don’t know anyone who is disabled. We’re invisible not because we don’t participate in social life, but because we’re not always easy to identify.
That’s why I find it much more revealing that 91% of those surveyed said they believe disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else. The disability rights movement argues that disability is social, not individual. But it’s easy to forget that society is all of us. If that response represents a widespread willingness to do something about the exclusion of disabled people in our society, and I want to believe it does, then that 91% are those with the power to effect change. From small-scale act to long-term commitment, this is the kind of action that can mitigate inequality – and it addresses more consequential issues than the diversity of our social circle. At a community level, we’re capable of simple consideration around priority seating on buses, refusing to use stigmatising language, or allowing more time for those who need it.
On a societal scale, we could be asking why wheelchair users can only get into one-fifth of London’s tube stations, or protesting against two-year waits for mental health treatment. Most importantly, we could become less afraid of the unknown by familiarising ourselves with the injustices that disabled people face. There’s a lot to be said for direct experience.
I’m very aware of my incredible privilege in being able to buy a home at all, when millions of disabled people and their families live in accommodation that the government considers “non-decent”, and far more are enduring long waiting times for homes that even begin to meet their access needs. Not everyone can choose to look stupid on a stairlift. But then, this is central to the social inequality that Scope was reporting. Reducing that is everyone’s responsibility. The line between the individual and society can descend into dinner-party tokenism, but we can do better than that.
By, Naomi Jacobs