18 October 2001
Mongo, retard, spastic, cripple, spacker, broke-back, joey, moron. Ugly words for ugly thoughts. Of course, enlightened people like us don't use them. Think again. Have you ever referred to someone as handicapped? Have you ever patted a guide dog? Have you been extra-friendly to someone just because they're in a wheelchair or told them it's great they've made the effort to get out?
Unintentionally, people without disabilities impose expectations upon disabled people. In a survey conducted by Leonard Cheshire last year, more than 70 per cent of respondents feared that being disabled would lower their standard of living and limit their social life. "It's hurtful and difficult not to be affected," says Clare Evans, manager of Leonard Cheshire's Disabled People's Forum. "People can't possibly imagine you do useful high-powered work, and not just for therapeutic reasons. Every day, 50 times a day, you realise what an outcast you are." A wife and mother, Evans had to grow used to strangers calling her "miss" the more she used her wheelchair. "They think disabled people don't have relationships and get married."
This is a chicken-and-egg situation. Until transport and access and employment possibilities improve, the less contact that people without disabilities have with disabled people, the less aware they are and the more awkward they feel when confronted by disability. Take one of the most common complaints, as experienced by Dougie McArthur, who uses a wheelchair after a rugby accident five years ago. He recently – with a female friend – tried to hire a kilt and jacket for a formal occasion. "They asked her where she wanted it sent. I thought, 'She's going to look damn silly wearing that kilt'."
So why are people so scared of who's in the wheelchair? "It's the cringe factor," says Mike Taylor, a graphic designer who has multiple sclerosis. "People don't like to see reality. If they don't see it, it doesn't matter." Children, by contrast, tend to be refreshingly frank. "Some kids I gave a talk to were fascinated by my wheels. They were the coolest things they'd seen," says Taylor.