Disability awareness: individual v organizational responsibility?

When it comes to raising awareness of the issues faced by people, it’s hard to know where best to direct the education – the actions of individuals or the actions of larger organizations. The answer is probably both, but where has the most impact? Aiming for a grassroots change in opinion so that the public lobbies for change or looking for leadership from  larger groups to set the tone for everyone to follow?

I’m going to try to bring together a number of separate thoughts I have been having, so settle in for a long read.

Recently I have seen a rise in articles on the web, both in disability-specific sites and newspaper sites, that talk to the ways that “able bodied people” annoy “disabled people”.  This article sums up the massive response on Reddit when the question “What do we (able bodied people) do that we think helps that really doesn’t?” The responses made me smile, because like most people in a wheelchair, I’ve had to deal with all of them, and on a regular basis, and you will have heard me complain about them. Last week I was in a restaurant and I recognised the accent of a lady and sure enough she was from close to home for me. I stopped to talk to her and she couldn’t stop touching me! Running her hand up and down my arm! I would gently pick up her hand and return it to the table top, but sure enough, it came right back. It was cute, and certainly not the end of the world, but I’m not sure why people feel the need to touch me!

In my first years teaching at Pearson College, one of the students was blind. He used to keep us laughing with many very funny stories of the things that had happened to him just like this and his attitude to exactly these kinds of situations. With a group of 4 other students, I took him on a trip to the US. When we got to the border, we had to go through Immigration where he had to fill in a questionnaire to be given his visa to entry, similar to this. I had to read the form out to him in front of the immigration official, who had to hear his responses. 

I got to question 3 “Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its Allies?” Standing there with a blind, 18 year old Argentinian and having to read this out was somewhat of a farce. And I got the giggles. I tried to read it three times, every time my giggles got worse. Finally the immigrations official got frustrated and shouted out “OR BETWEEN 1933 AND 1945 WERE INVOLVED, IN ANY WAY, IN PERSECUTIONS ASSOCIATED WITH NAZI GERMANY OR ITS ALLIES?!?” 

My student said “Michelle, is this man stupid? He has my passport! Can he not see I was born in 1980?!?” I froze, thinking this could be the end to our trip to the US. The immigration replied “I think we will take that as a ‘no’, ma’am!” Thankfully this individual officer dealt with the stupidity of the situation in a humane way and our trip continued!

Today this situation is in the news. Anyone who goes to concerts or shows in a wheelchair will empathise. I often end up on the back row, so when everyone stands I see nothing, and the sight lines are usually pretty poor. On a trip to Vegas I decided not to see any shows as all of the wheelchair accessible seating was in the last row of every section, often to the side. That means that you pay the same as someone in the middle of the front row of the same section without ever having a hope of achieving the same experience – and you pay a lot more than someone in the centre just one row behind! A constant issue and a constant form of discrimination. This affects people with mobility issues far more than the lady that ran her hand up and down my arm. A better solution would be a purpose built section for wheelchairs with decent sight and sound lines, rather than an add on – and Vegas theatres could certainly afford to do that. In one concert here in the Okanagan I moved myself to the sound desk at the back of the auditorium for a much better experience! I got a few strange looks from the technicians but no-one approached me…luckily…for them.

This week an article in the Daily Mail had as a headline that the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, had “rolled up” to the meetings about the Greek finance debacle. I bookmarked the story, but it has now been altered. Why is this an issue? Because he’s in a wheelchair. Ha ha ha. He “rolled up” to the meeting. Terrible. What a surprise it’s been altered. Next time I’ll take a screenshot…

Without change “from the top”, without visible equality for disabled people as an accepted and regular part of daily life, individuals are unlikely to change. There needs to be a consistent message from everyone that disabled people need treating with respect and compassion. At the moment, the message is rather one sided. I look back at the lady running her hand up and down my arm, and I see compassion. Lots of the individuals I come across treat me that way, even though their attempts may be slightly misplaced. The response from organisations is often disjointed. I will continue to lobby the organisations for change, while smiling and accepting the well meaning individuals.


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