The Simon Heng Column

Ricky Gervais fans will already know that the main characters in both The Office and Extras treat disabled people with the same lack of respect, understanding and sensitivity as they do everyone else.

Breathtaking moments in The Office include David Brent rolling the wheelchair user out of the way when he wants to talk to someone else in a crowded bar. In Extras, an actor with cerebral palsy attempts to talk to Gervais’s character, with a complete lack of success, because he refuses to try to understand her speech impediment. His friend suddenly stops fancying an attractive man when she finds out that he has one leg shorter than the other and wears a built-up shoe (“Do you have to buy them in pairs and throw one away?”).

What’s so great about these scenes is that they are so toe-curlingly true to life. A young man I know, who has cerebral palsy, is routinely followed around the supermarket, because the security guards think he’s drunk. Each time a friend – with cerebral palsy – tries to describe his symptoms to his GP, the doctor questions his personal assistant (the PA, to his credit, responded with “I’m not your patient – he is”).

Anyone who thinks that wheelchair users aren’t treated as objects hasn’t been supermarket shopping with me. My wheelchair is routinely bashed by other trolley pushers, who don’t see the need to apologise, presumably because my wheelchair is just another kind of trolley to them.

Either that, or people think that they don’t have to bother about the usual social conventions with the disabled. I have been confronted by strangers in the street with questions like: “How do you go to the toilet?” or warnings: “Careful with the wheelchair – you could run into someone.” I appreciated the last comment because, in 10 years of driving a powerchair, I’d never given a thought to anyone walking past me.

The most recent, and the most baffling, was a woman who stepped to one side to let me pass. As we crossed, she asked: “Am I confusing you?” I said: “No. Am I confusing you?”


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