As a registered blind man I am struck by the way in which non-disabled people react to me when out with my non-disabled friends. Let me qualify the above statement, I am struck by the manner in which some non-disabled people react to me, as a blind person when I am out with my non-disabled friends. For instance I was, several days ago in a restaurant with a sighted friend. At one point during the course of our meal the waitress asked (referring to me) “would he” like something (I can’t recollect whether it was wine or a particular dish). Anyway I answered the lady’s question and, to be fair throughout the remainder of our time in the restaurant the waitress addressed herself to me (rather than my companion) when wishing to illicit a response from myself.
The above incident reminded me of a former programme, on BBC Radio 4 entitled “Does he take sugar?” which was devoted to disability issues. The programme gained it’s title from the way in which some non-disabled individuals address themselves to people with disabilities’s companions rather than to the disabled person themselves.
I can’t envisage a social situation in which a lady’s male companion is asked what his girlfriend/wife/companion would like to drink. The lady in question would, quite rightly demand to know why the question was being addressed to her male companion rather than to herself and yet it is still common- place for the friends of disabled people to be asked to speak on behalf of their disabled companions. Why should this be the case? I think part at least of the answer is that many non-disabled people have not come into close contact with people with disabilities and, as a consequence they have little (if any idea) how to interact with them. This is strange given that if, for example I, as a blind person go into a shop by myself the shop assistant has no option other than to address him or herself directly to me and yet if I go into that self-same store with a non-disabled friend then the assistant is likely to address themselves to my friend rather than to me.
The issue of how non-disabled people interact with people with disabilities is also influenced by the fear of certain non-disabled persons of (not to put to fine a point on it) of disability. I’ve frequently had people say to me words to the effect of “I admire you, I couldn’t get around London if I was disabled” or “you are brave”. The unspoken words here are “thank god that I am not disabled”! Obviously, in the great scheme of things I would rather be fully sighted than (as I am) registered blind. However I enjoy a high quality of life going to pubs, restaurants etc and for most of the time I am not thinking about the fact that I am blind. The perception of non-disabled people is often (but by no means always) skewed. They perceive disability as a tragedy while to disabled people their disability is not (in most cases) seen in that manner. We get on with our lives, go to university, socialise etc rather than staying at home wailing “woe is me”!
It is important that children are educated from a young age regarding the facts surrounding disabilities. Only when children are faced with disabled people who live happy and fulfilled lives will they come to see them as equals rather than as objects of pity. Don’t get me wrong the atitudes of society to people with disabilities have improved greatly over the years. The passage of the Disability Discrimination Act and it’s incorporation into the Equalities Act was a great step forward, however there still remains much work to be done.