Civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who took a stand against racial segregation on buses in Alabama. Disabled people face an 'us and them' ethos. Photograph: Corbis

Tackling disability discrimination takes more than wheelchair ramps

Dribblers please sit on the left”; the underbelly of disability segregation and acceptance.

Rosa Parks Tackling disability discrimination takes more than wheelchair ramps photo

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks, who took a stand against racial segregation on buses in Alabama. Disabled people face an 'us and them' ethos. Photograph: Corbis

By Matthew Harper – Guardian Blog

You’re in a restaurant; dressed up, with friends, family, maybe a partner and halfway through your slap-up meal there’s a tap on your shoulder and “do you mind moving? it’s disgusting, no its just … you’re dribbling – it’s putting me off my food”. Had that said to you? Or been the one saying it? Or even just thinking it? 

Postwar history taught us that the mindset of western civilisation was that individuals needed to adapt to existing environments and that wheelchairs were obstacles to participation, not steps and kerbs. The late 1960s and early 70s saw action taken for infrastructure to adapt to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities and encourage inclusion. Visibly, there are obvious procedures and policies, ramps and electric doors to demonstrate this progression.

However, these physical alterations only take into account the physical needs of those they intend to assist. We may have automatic electric doors for people in wheelchairs, but how would we react to someone on a cold windy day asking to have an outside door wedged open because their autism makes them fear being locked in? I wouldn’t want to be sat in a cold draft, would you?

Having worked in a retirement village where there are residents with extra care needs and those without, and working within school and youth settings where again there are children with and without registered disabilities, there is still a divide. There is a repulsion in canteens or restaurants if the person with a disability is “dribbling” or “making a mess”; it is something that “we do not want to look at” but it is OK if it is “over there” or if “they are out of the way”.

In the era of Rosa Parks’ stand against racism, where the segregation of white and black people was clearly marked with signs, an “us and them” ethos was not only accepted but lawful; being “over there” was mandatory. Nowadays, on the whole we would judge this as disgusting, so even without signs on seats, why do we promote the same outcome for disability? Why do people feel the same way now as we did 60 years ago?

Perhaps the reason is that there are no signs, nothing written, and nothing tangible to stand up against. Instead the segregation lies in hushed tones and is actually more corrosive.

This segregation is justified by saying disabled people need to be “over there”, because that’s where their special needs can be met. I am not saying there is not an element of truth in that, however needs also involve social interaction, inclusion and the capacity to participate as equals.

We find security in the process of pigeonholing people into easily identifiable groups. Take, for example, someone with mobility problems such as paraplegia, which has become an “acceptable” disability through the social construction of the “wheelchair”. We know not how to react to the medical condition and its implications, but the wheelchair itself – we move out of the way, we hold the door open and so we feel we have engaged correctly while avoiding having to address the disability directly.

Cerebral palsy, on the other hand is still classed as “socially unacceptable”, as it is difficult to identify. That person hobbling home, unbalanced, is surely just drunk? And why would we publicly want to associate ourselves with a rude drunk? What would that do to the non-disabled image? We’d be lying if we said those thoughts hadn’t even fleetingly crossed our minds.

So, how do we battle this segregation? It starts with acceptanceof the stark reality we live in and what we actually think of disability, but are too ashamed to admit. Change comes from understanding and accepting disability, together with embracing the person as an individual.

Maybe we can start with me? I have cerebral palsy; it’s mild, but I’ll probably limp back to my seat, unbalanced, and awkwardly work through my meal later on, but how would I have been taken if I was dribbling throughout or if autism meant that my language abilities were impaired? Disability isn’t cool or fashionable, but it is real and it is now. The apartheid culture and the Rosa Parks era has not left our reactions towards disability and still limits people’s lives today.

matt harper 150x150 Tackling disability discrimination takes more than wheelchair ramps photo

Matt Harper

• Matthew Harper works at Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust’s Hartfields Retirement Village in Hartlepool and wrote this piece for the Young Thinker of the Year Award of the Young UK and Ireland Programme, for which he was named runner up  Matthew is a performance artist and can be found on his website.

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