I was reading a popular internet discussion forum a little while ago, and was interested to see the subject of disability come up. The topic in question was on what “counts” as disability. Many disabled people commented about their disabilities – and many (presumably) currently non-disabled people also chimed in to tell the world their views of what counted as a disability.
Two things seem to always come up during conversations like this: disability benefits, and Blue Badges. For any non-UK readers I might have, disability benefits means any money the government gives a person because they are disabled. This could include Incapacity Benefit or Employment & Support Allowance, and Disability Living Allowance, among others. A Blue Badge is a laminated card, about 4″x6″, which entitles you to park your car (or the person driving you to park their car) in designated disabled parking spaces and on double yellow lines (“no parking” zone markings) for up to three hours.
I’m not going to go into the controversies and arguments surrounding disability benefits. Suffice it to say I am in receipt of them, and having gone through the massively long and distressing process required to be awarded them, I am 100% certain that a) they are far too difficult to receive, rather than far too easy as the media would have you believe and b) the number of people who’d bother to scam the system for that small amount of money is so small as to be negligible. I’ve argued both points many times, and frankly I think there are far better posts and articles around the internet that explain disability benefits much more eloquently than I could.
No, what’s bothering me today is the attitudes surrounding Blue Badges. Several times on the thread I mentioned earlier, commenters made it very clear that they thought many Blue Badge holders weren’t “really” disabled. The evidence they held up to support their opinions usually centred around the fact that once, the commenter had seen some young person park in a disabled bay and then “sprint” away from their car – the idea being that if one appears to be able to walk, especially well, then one should not be entitled to a Blue Badge.
Well I have a Blue Badge. It wasn’t an easy road getting it, and in the end it was the kindness of my GP writing a letter to the council which got it awarded to me. And I can walk most of the time. Some days I can walk my son to school with no aids whatsoever – and sometimes I need to use an electric wheelchair. Most of the time I’m somewhere in between. Some days I will swing between the two hour-by-hour – my disability is not kind enough to be predictable.
So you, unsuspecting currently non-disabled person, might see me – mid-twenties, pierced and tattooed and not looking like you “expect” a disabled person to look – park my car in one of the disabled bays at, say, the supermarket. You might see me get out of my car easily, and wonder what entitles me to that space. What were you expecting – that I fall out of the driver’s seat and drag myself by my arms across the asphalt? Not all disabled people are completely incapable of walking. That’s the first point I wanted to make.
So you’ve watched me exit my car, and so far, to your obviously expert eye, I don’t “look” disabled. Now from here I might pull a walking stick out of the passenger side and hobble into the shop. Would I look disabled enough then? I can see you, non-disabled person, and the way your disapproving look disappears once you see my beautiful purple wooden cane with the silver handle, a gift from my husband for our wedding. But let’s say I don’t have my walking stick. Let’s say I walk, with apparent ease, from the disabled bay to the supermarket doors.
What then, currently non-disabled person? Do you assume that because I walked so easily that I am not really disabled, that I’m not really entitled to that Blue Badge, that I don’t really need that space? Do you base your assumption about my health, my life, on the minute or two for which you’ve seen me? You really shouldn’t. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the looks I get. I’ve never had the courage to challenge the onlookers, because I know that given the current climate of hatred towards the disabled (and the assumption that most disabled people are faking it) you, currently non-disabled person, are unlikely to believe a word I say.
But on that day, when I pull up in the disabled bay, place my Blue Badge in its spot on the dashboard of my people carrier, step out easily and walk with ease to the supermarket – I don’t know how the rest of my day is going to go. For all I know – and based on experience, it is likely – the trip around the supermarket will deplete me rapidly of spoons, or energy, and I will be fatigued and in pain by the time I am finished. By that point, dear reader, can you see why I need the disabled bay? I didn’t need it on my way in, but I certainly needed it on my way out.
The opposite can also be true. You might see me walk to my car with a spring in my step, and think “That Anji from that blog was full of shit, this person’s on their way back to their car and doesn’t seem to be in pain or fatigued at all!” Well I’m hoping, after everything I’ve said, that you can see what’s coming next. Many disabilities are variable, and it could have been that upon my arrival I was feeling awful, but that during my visit I’ve started to feel better. Perhaps I’ve walked off some of the stiffness in my legs. Perhaps I took my medication and it took effect before I finished shopping. Perhaps it’s just that between my arrival and my departure, I started to feel a little better. It happens – I feel better, I feel worse. As I said, like many others, my disability is not kind enough to be predictable.
I hope that now you have come to the end of my post, the currently non-disabled among you have realised that you can’t tell anything about a person and their disability just by the way they behave for the few minutes in which you see them. I hope you’ve resolved to never again judge a disabled person by their apparent ability to walk (or run, or whatever else it is they’re doing that you deem ‘impossible’ for a disabled person). Most of all, I hope you are determined to challenge others when they bring out the tired old arguments about disabled people ‘sprinting’ from their cars in disabled parking bays. It’s the least you can do, if you want to be an ally to disabled people.