Yesterday it came to light that a disabled woman was facing more than £1,000 in fines for parking in an accessible space outside her home. The reasoning behind the eye-watering fines that Cerys Gemma has been ordered to pay was that it wasn’t her space, but one for disabled visitors.
This is just the latest in a string of incidents seemingly “exposing” the appalling treatment that disabled people have to endure while trying to live normal lives. There have been so many of these headlines recently, such as the disabled woman who was left on a plane for more than 90 minutes, or – even more horrifying – the disabled man who fell to his death down an escalator at an airport, after also being left on a plane.
You would be forgiven for thinking there has been a sharp sudden rise in these incidents, and that things have got much worse for disabled people. But is this the full story? Or is it just that they’re only now getting the attention they deserve?
In my opinion, it’s both – and it’s complex.
It may well be true that incidences of neglect against disabled people are going up, but it’s anything but new. As a disabled journalist and activist, I’ve fought for awareness of this for years. And while it’s great that these experiences are being called out more often in the mainstream media, it comes down to the way they’re called out. Stories are usually reported in such a way that will cause shock and outrage to non-disabled people. But for disabled people themselves, it’s far from a surprise. We know that people just don’t care about disabled people enough. When we read these stories we aren’t finding out anything new, we’re seeing past trauma dragged out in excruciating detail again, almost as a reminder that our pain comes second to a good story.
These incidents are so common that they’ve become part of the ordinary rhythm of our lives. We’re left on trains, harassed in public and refused entry to buses when there are prams and buggies in the accessible spaces. We’re unable to enter the majority of cafes and shops that have steps, bright lights or not enough space for us to get around. If you’ve ever tried to navigate your local area with a buggy, you’ll realise how few and how inconsistent drop-curbs are – now imagine not being able to cross the street without them. I recently had to stop my friend toppling out of her wheelchair on to a busy London road when a drop-curb was built badly. The other pedestrians barely batted an eyelid.
Paralympian and campaigner Tanni Grey-Thompson has long been documenting her woes with train travel on Twitter, and she is far from the only one. Her account reads like an anthology of assistance fails and disability neglect. And it doesn’t just happen on the trains and planes themselves – trying to get around stations when staff aren’t notified or aren’t adequately trained – or worse, when there simply aren’t enough staff – causes just as much of a problem.
A big part of this is lack of training and resources, but the government and certain parts of the media have also bred a contempt towards disabled people over the last decade or so by making us out to be lazy benefit scroungers who take hard-working people’s taxes. Disabled people have always been seen as less deserving, because we contribute less to society after all, don’t we? This was especially evident during the pandemic – a time when we should have been protected the most – when many of us felt like non-disabled people would have preferred to shut us inside for ever so they could carry on with their lives.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be reporting and reacting to these stories: far from it, we should be reporting all the abhorrent things that happen to disabled people. The fact that six in 10 people who died of Covid in England were disabled, and not all of them were clinically vulnerable people, should have been front-page news. There should have been uproar in parliament and around the country when the government announced it wouldn’t be implementing vital post-Grenfell plans to ensure the safety of disabled residents of tower blocks.
Instead, we only see shock and outrage when big stories appear with a tragic image of a disabled person in distress, only for them to be forgotten about within days. In the disabled community, we call this “trauma porn”: the act of taking a deeply traumatic event in a person’s life and holding it up as an example to non-disabled people.
What we need alongside these blink-and-they’re-gone displays of anger and dismay is for non-disabled people to join campaigns to make our lives better. We need you to stand beside us and call for real change. Sign petitions, vote for members of parliament who care about disabled people, ask about disabled access in your local areas, and give to fundraisers when you can. Demand that the government does better by us, so that more of us can participate in everyday life, and so that these stories don’t need to keep being told.
We don’t need your shock and outrage, we need your support. Disabled people aren’t objects of pity – we want to live our lives, just like you do.
July 15, 2022 at 08:19PM Rachel Charlton-Dailey