The Simon Heng Column

Bert Massie, chair of the Disability Rights Commission, recently wrote in The Guardian that disabled people have suffered equal amounts of discrimination and exclusion to those segregated by their race. He writes: “Problems with access, discrimination at work and school, and a prevailing sense that disabled people are different simply because they have a disability incur little outrage.”

Disabled people are more likely not to finish school, not to be employed despite wanting to work and are more likely to die younger. They are more likely to be victims of abuse and violent crime, to live in poverty, and to be placed in care homes against their wishes. The parallels between the institutional inequalities on the basis of race, compared with those on the basis of disability are inescapable, even down to the fact that more disabled people are, proportionally, detained against their will: there is a higher proportion of black people in prison than in the general population, as there are people with mental health problems.

As people of colour used to be lionised, demonised, or portrayed as characters of fun, so it is with disabled people, both in the media and in everyday life. In films and dramas, disabled people – when they’re not invisible – are heroes or villains; in the news media, every disabled person’s achievements are “heroic” in their “struggle” with their disability; in day-to-day life we are often seen as objects of pity or fear, whingers or inconveniences. The parallels with the history of racial discrimination are there for all to see.

And, just like ethnic minority communities, disabled communities do have different histories, different practices, different views of the “host” society, and different insights into what makes us human. None of this should stop us being seen as anything more or less than ordinary, in our human frailties and our ambitions. Bert Massie calls for more interaction between the non-disabled and disabled, meaning interacting more as equals. Because, despite our differences, of shape, perception, need, size, intellect, that’s all we should be – equals.

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