Beware attitudes that hold disabled people back

If people with disabilities are demanding it’s because the rest of us are often insensitive to their legitimate needs, writes Mark Drinkwater (pictured)

It’s not just impairments that can hold disabled people back – it’s attitudes too.

On a recent trip to Wales, I was dismayed to read in a local newspaper about a disabled man’s frustration in trying to use his local bus service. Damian Chick relies on the service to get him around Cardiff and his custom-built motorised wheelchair has been cleared for use on all public transport by the bus company.

But in spite of this, Chick still regularly reports being refused access to buses by individual drivers not following the company guidance.

Back at work, a flustered colleague was cancelling a restaurant reservation for a group of colleagues. They had realised that one guest was a wheelchair user and that the venue wasn’t accessible. After making alternative arrangements at a neighbouring restaurant, I heard him apologising that they would be getting Mexican food, not Indian. Some of the guests were more understanding than others.

A few found it hard to hide their disappointment. But did it really matter that they would be tucking in to tortilla chips instead of poppadoms? It’s a trifling issue when you consider that the original option would have entirely excluded one member of the party.

Access considerations are not merely related to transport or buildings. Likewise, insensitive attitudes are not just confined to bus drivers or work colleagues. But while we might have started out with good intentions, with a busy workload, there’s always a temptation to cut corners.

I’m guilty of that myself and have, in the past, booked a meeting room that was not accessible, only to have to backtrack and find a more inclusive arrangement.

Disability awareness course

I recently went on a two-day course on disability awareness. There was plenty to contemplate concerning our legal duties and practical challenges. With so many different types of sensory and physical disability, it makes sense for all staff to go on refresher courses like this to remind ourselves of the relevant considerations in ensuring that services are accessible to all.

Being fair and equal often requires little more than being considerate. Social workers are in a position to help, but a disabled friend of mine once expressed annoyance with his experience of social services. After moving to a new flat, he was assessed as requiring only a single bed.

He argued that he needed a double bed, but was having difficulty getting his social worker to acknowledge this. A strong believer of the “social model”, he saw his social worker as being over-medicalised with a mechanistic approach.

Non-sexual being

The implicit message was that he was considered as a non-sexual being who would never desire to have a partner share a bed with him.

He felt he was being denied a fundamental part of an ordinary lifestyle and had expected his social worker to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of work with the local disability forum. If you listen to some professionals talk about disabled people, you would think they were difficult to work with. But disabled people only appear demanding because they are not having their needs met adequately.

When you consider cases like Damian Chick’s, it’s easy to understand why disabled people are often found complaining. Faced with insensitive service provision, I would be too.

Mark Drinkwater is Community Care’s practice adviser

Published in the 26 March 2009 edition of Community Care in the On Reflection column under the headline ‘It’s not disabled people who have an attitude problem’

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