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The disability paradox

Some years ago, I sat on a bench in the city centre and the man sitting next to me looked at me, looked at my walking stick, and said “Get off your arse and get a job”.

I told him I had a job. He spat back, “No you haven’t, you’ve got a [walking] stick!”.

To him, I was workshy. But, simultaneously, it was inconceivable that I could be able to work, due to my mobility aid.

This contradiction is one that disabled people in the UK face every day. I couldn’t possibly be working – because everyone knows disabled people are both faking it and too sick to actually be worth employing, at the same time.

Employers will say privately that they don’t want to hire people with mental health problems because they are unreliable, or people with physical health problems because they need too much time off; in the pub, the same people criticise those who are disabled or chronically ill for being scroungers and read tabloid newspapers that slate disability activists for being well enough to protest without being well enough to work. Assumptions abound, and rarely are we asked to clarify the truth about our own lives.

Rarely are we given a chance – to explain ourselves, or to prove ourselves.

The same applies to social and community events. On documents our social workers procure called ‘recovery journeys’ or ‘wellness plans’, we fill in boxes about what our lives are like and how we want them to be. They are divided up, so there are sections about work, about socialising, about involvement in the community, about managing our homes and about personal care.

Perhaps we want to become active in our local residents’ association, or attend a local fayre. Maybe we want to volunteer with a community group or start attending exercise classes at the library.

The thing is, our desire to do these things and the reality do not match up. Accessibility is always, always an issue. If we are fortunate enough to be able to get in through the door, our request for a sign language interpreter may have been ignored. Or if we make it into a committee meeting, members may be impatient with our speech impediment or not take us seriously because we rock backwards and forwards or get panicky easily.

What’s more, if we are successful in getting involved in community activities or managing to socialise with our friends, those on benefits live in dread of being ‘found out’, as if they are doing something wrong when they are not. The chance that attending a residents’ association meeting might be interpreted to mean that we are capable of work (so that benefits would be stopped, post haste, and accusations of having faked an impairment may follow) means that people just do not risk getting involved or taking part.

The same applies to going swimming or attending a rare, accessible gym. “What if DWP thinks I lied on my DLA / PIP form?” comes up on Twitter a lot. Even if going swimming or spending 5 minutes on a treadmill might help their condition and ease pain or relieve anxiety, the risk feels too high.

People aren’t lying, they just have varying conditions, or – most frequently – can do activity A and not activity B. Assumptions are made: if you can X, then surely you can Y. If you can swim, you must be able to use your arms and hands to prepare food. If you can dig in an allotment, you must be able to undertake physical work experience.

Bodies just don’t work like that, and complex impairments – and combinations of impairments – certainly don’t. A mental health community centre I used to attend had its own allotment that service users could go to to dig, think about the world and be calm amidst the chaos of modern life. Funding cuts means the allotment is long gone, but I can’t help but feel that nowadays, those same service users would be wary of joining in, lest they be accused of cheating the system.

And this is the paradox of living a disabled life in austerity Britain. You can’t do right for doing wrong.

I do work, and I walk with a crutch. I can work because I had specialist support that helped me to set up my business in a way that suited my conditions and my life perfectly, and I can work because I’m bloody minded and determined and quite good at what I do. Without that support? I dread to think.

But it doesn’t stop me being called names in the street, and the fact that I do work doesn’t make me to any degree superior to a friend or contact who is unable to. It means I don’t have the stress of DWP breathing down my neck, but I feel strongly for those who I know who do.

As long as the public wants us to participate, it has to enable us to do so. You want us to work? Give us that job you’ve advertised! You want us to get fitter and stop using up NHS resources? Let us use fitness facilities when we can without threatening to ‘shop’ us as a benefit faker. You want us to participate in community activities? Answer our emails asking about accessibility and accept the differences and quirks that make us all human.

Photo credit: Eric Hill/Creative Commons

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Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women’s issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.