The Simon Heng Column

Volkswagen Beetle drivers always used to wave at each other when passing. It meant something like: “In this anonymous world, we share something, even if it’s only being deafened by our noisy cars.”

I’m beginning to feel the same way about having an obvious disability. When I pass someone who is visibly disabled, our eyes meet with a thin smile. Sometimes the smile is friendlier, and the less inhibited – usually people with learning difficulties – actually say hello, which always cheers me up. I suppose the message is the same: we share something.

A few years ago, most disabled people were forced into each other’s company. People lived communally in asylums or sheltered communities; more recently, we lived in hostels or group homes, and spent much of our time in day centres – still, in effect, ghettos. Conversation centred on discrimination and oppression: which community facilities weren’t accessible, demeaning treatment from doctors and shop assistants, or the limits on our freedom imposed by our care packages.

At the same time, being forced together gave people the chance to learn from each other how to live a life with disability: which cafés were wheelchair-friendly, the cheapest place to buy mobility aids, find the best respite care, or deal with discrimination. This process of socialisation fostered a sense of community, perhaps a sense of a separate culture.

The drive towards independent living, and day activities aimed at education and work means that fewer disabled people see each other regularly. For me, and maybe for many others, there is a sense of loss to this.

There’s also a sense of irony. We’ve been campaigning for equal rights, and for integration into the mainstream, and now it’s happening. But our worlds are becoming more atomised, and we have to work harder to stay in touch with old friends. We may lose that sense of community: all we will be left with will be the smiles of recognition.

As the adage goes: “Be careful what you wish for: you just might get it.”


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