I heard of a tale where a Headteacher was so overjoyed when his school became home to pupils who were of African ethnicity, he would tell anyone who cared to listen, “We have black people!” In this day and age, it sounds like an utterly offensive and crazy thing to have said, especially considering it wasn’t an isolated incident. The same guy was once showing a prospective pupil around his school and he went to shake hands; which was all well and good until he realised the boy was an amputee, missing his right arm. As one of the first pupils on wheels, he would roll me out to show visitors our school was disability inclusive. He also never stopped calling me “little’un” whilst he affectionately patted me on the head.
I was having this conversation with my friend when we found ourselves deep in debate about how disabled people and minorities are perceived in society. Although you may think our Headteacher was the worst person to run a diverse and integrative school, he wasn’t. Sure, he had the tact of a gnat which left everyone on tenterhooks as they waited for his next blunder. But, in many ways, he was the perfect man for the job. Irrespective of his way with words, he made everyone feel respected and valued.
In my mind, this proves disability integration is not about using politically correct terminology. Whether I describe myself as ‘wheelchair dependant’ or ‘a cripple with wonky legs’ is irrelevant to who I am as a person. Please do not go around calling every disabled person a cripple because they might get offended, but that’s my point. I think we get too caught up in semantics and the illusion that what we say is an accurate reflection on our true colours. To a certain extent, we do have to abide by what is deemed to be acceptable in society. For example, I wouldn’t apply for a job within a charity that advocates disability rights, and immediately start referring to everyone as ‘special people’ – there are boundaries. However, I feel so many people who call themselves advocates eloquently say what they think you need to hear in order to get what they want out of being ‘the face of disability’.
It’s hard to establish what came first, the chicken or the egg. Did society and its semantical labels allow disabled people to use them to their own advantage or did the disabled people create their semantical labels in a society when everyone was beginning to become more open and aware? Either way, in my opinion, something massively backfired because we have a society in which people tread on eggshells whilst disabled folk shout about what they’re entitled to without a care in the world or any intention to meet anyone halfway. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for raising awareness and fighting for rights, but there’s a certain way to do it.
I’m not saying all disabled people are out for their own gain, but I think the words and actions of the few who are, have hugely impacted on the rest of us. It’s becoming more apparent that if you have a disability, the chances are you’ve been sheltered from the world so much that you haven’t been given the opportunity to learn from experience. This isn’t a blame game – it’s no one’s fault, but we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Society has a habit of tarring everyone with the same brush under the false impression that disabled people can’t do anything for themselves which enables disabled people to take advantage. In turn, this means nobody is fully equipped to live in an inclusive society; either because we’re too scared of offending people or we’re too entrapped in our own ideals, we forget to view anything from another perspective.
You might disagree with everything I’ve said and if you do, please tell me. But I think the key in breaking the cycle is to strike a balance between living in an integrative society yet being bold enough to push the boundaries. If you want to announce to the world that “we have black people” or parade the girl on wheels around whilst making things accessible and integrative for all, then go for it. I think it’s a step in the right direction.