With the 2016 Paralympics currently underway in Rio, it seems our society has come a long way in accepting people with disabilities. Yet a recent report from Scope found that, despite the work that has been accomplished in representing disabled people more equally, a staggering 67% of Brits feel uncomfortable simply talking to a person with disabilities – and disabled people and their families feel that negative attitudes about disability hold them back in every area of their life. Yet it is important to understand that these negative attitudes are often the result of ignorance or embarrassment, rather than maliciousness – and both disabled people and the general public feel that more interactions and increased education about disability will help to increase understanding and acceptance of disabled peoples.
But with so many able-bodied people concerned that they might say the wrong thing when talking to someone with disabilities to the extent that they would rather avoid them entirely, how can we help to empower disabled individuals, and close the perception gap between able-bodied and disabled people?
Disability in the Public Eye
Representing disabled people more often on TV and in the media is key to changing the public perception of them as either burdens or objects of pity. This is why the Paralympics are so great – by celebrating what disabled people can do, rather than focusing on what they can’t, they break down public misconceptions. Sadly, many documentaries around disability are nothing more than voyeurism, though the increase in public figures such as actress Jamie Brewer and comedian Anthony Bommarito helps to demonstrate that people with disabilities are perfectly capable of forging meaningful public careers.
Disability in the Workplace
If you’re an employer, you should make every effort to ensure your hiring practices allow disabled people to work for you – and if that means making workplace adjustments, or showing flexibility (for example with working hours) based around their needs, then that is a small price to pay for having a responsible, equal-opportunities business. Fewer than 1/5 disabled adults are employed – but having a disability in one aspect of your life doesn’t mean you can’t be an asset in others. Disabled people are motivated and keen to work – so if you give them a chance, they could turn out to be your most loyal and motivated employees.
If attitudes towards disabled people in the UK could be better, abroad, they can be horrific – in India, for example, disabled people are often isolated, rejected and even excluded from society completely. This is why the work of charities such as the Tej Kohli Foundation are so important – founded by tech billionaire Tej Kohli (net worth: £4.5 billion), it has funded many projects helping disabled people in rural Indian communities to get into work through vocational training. It’s easy to think of disabled communities abroad as “not our problem” – but we cannot simply leave social responsibility to high net worth individuals such as Tej Kohli. Unless we take a holistic approach to eliminating the stigma surrounding disability, we will get nowhere – so if you’re passionate about improving the lives of disabled people, consider volunteering abroad with a charity such as the Tej Kohli Foundation. It’s a truly eye opening experience, and these disenfranchised individuals are in desperate need of help.
We’ve come a long way in terms of how we regard the disabled, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a long journey ahead before reaching complete acceptance and equality. So be mindful of others around you and the small things you can do to help – cumulatively, they can make an enormous difference.