If, like me, you’ve been blind from birth, it’s easy to forget what will deeply shock someone who is newly blind. Reading in Community Care before Christmas about a newly blind woman’s horror at suddenly being treated as if she were an idiot, my first reaction was a rather dismissive “Yes, pal, tell me about it. I’ve been putting up with that for over 50 years”. But of course going blind is shocking, and as far as I can see, has been almost wholly unaffected by the wave of anti-discrimination legislation over the past 10 years, and therefore it’s wholly right to keep going on about it.
Only the other day I was wandering down to my bank when a woman suddenly hailed me with the words “where are you going?”. Of course apart from being an impertinent question – after all, I could have been on my way to see my mistress – it was a deeply irritating one. For a start, what it actually meant was: “Do you know where you’re going?”. And the sub-question below that was: “Do you want me to take you there?”. Now had I been wrapping myself around a lamp-post at the time, or walking in the middle of the road, it might have been understandable. But I was doing neither: I was making a rather dignified passage along the pavement, happily swinging my white cane. The real implication was: you’re a blind man out on your own – you must need assistance.
The idea that I’m a blind man out on my own, and have been so for about the past 40 years, and have been surviving perfectly well without the help of this woman, did not seem to register. I know some of you will be thinking: “The old curmudgeon. It was just a kindly-meant offer of help; why not politely decline it and go on your way?” Which would be fine if you weren’t having to do it about 40 times a day.
And that is the point: that it’s kindly meant, but the discrimination of good intentions can be more deadly than the discrimination of mindless prejudice precisely because you can legislate against prejudice, but you can’t pass laws to stop people being misguidedly well-intentioned. Many people are passed over for jobs or their promotion blocked because well-intentioned people can’t imagine them being able to do the job. Either they think it would impose too much strain, or it just never occurs to them that a disabled person is understretched, rather than overstretched.
Last month the Disability Equality Duty came into force. It tells public bodies, local councils, police authorities and government departments that they must have a specific policy to ensure that disabled people are treated equally and that they can’t just wait for someone to bring a case against them before deciding what their policy is. Few people would argue against such a law. But it still begs the question just how effective will it be when most discrimination stems from misguided kindness rather than bigotry?
It’s one reason why I think disabled people are right to be wary of the new single equality body, which will do away with the Disability Rights Commission. The implication is that all discrimination is the same, and therefore can be dealt with through similar strategies (quite apart from the fact that the government perceives that having all human rights discrimination under one administrative roof will be cheaper).
The fact is that discrimination on disability grounds is not the same as race discrimination which is based on mindless xenophobic prejudice with no facts to back it up.
Discrimination on disability grounds is based on a failure to grasp that physical or psychiatric problems can be compensated for by the imaginativeness and adaptability of the disabled person and the flexibility of the employer. The problem is you can’t legislate to implant flexibility into the inflexible and well-intentioned mind. So, what’s the answer then, I hear you cry! Well, I know what mine is: eternal vigilance, and persistent bad manners. Happy new year!
Peter White is the BBC’s disability correspondent