Have you ever experienced discrimination because of your disability? Writer Rebecca Sherwood, who uses a wheelchair, talks about the many different types of discrimination, from accessibility issues to prejudices, and how it can come in many different guises.
Unfortunately, as disabled people, we can probably all recall instances where we haven’t been treated as equals.
To be discriminated against is to be treated unfairly as an individual or as a wider marginalised group, based on preconceived ideas and biases.
Historically, disabled people have been very openly discriminated against, with religions, such as Christianity, having viewed a person with an impairment as being less than human, or believing that a disability is a form of punishment. Although these narratives are no longer an accepted belief, there are still negative stigmas and stereotypes to overcome.
Direct and indirect discrimination
There are several types of discrimination, and an important distinction here needs to be made between direct and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination involves a specific attack on a person’s disability, whereas indirect discrimination means excluding people based on ignorance or pre-existing policies, regardless of disability.
Prejudice also differs from discrimination in that it is an unconscious bias. However, it does lead to discrimination if the preconceived notion is acted upon. It is essentially the difference between attitude and treatment.
The fact that prejudice regarding disability is deeply embedded in attitudes makes it extremely difficult to identify.
For example, disability discrimination within society has inadvertently led to access discrimination, where venues are inaccessible for wheelchair users whose need for adaptations hasn’t been taken into consideration. For too long, disabled peoples’ participation in society has been an afterthought, with unreliable and cramped lifts, badly designed toilets and makeshift ramps.
This all leads to an overall feeling that disabled people are undervalued, diminishing their sense of self-worth.
I have certainly been affected by access discrimination. The best example of this was during my counselling placement in 2012-2013 when inaccessibility made it really difficult to achieve one of the essential requirements of my course.
For this particular qualification, each student had to carry out 120 hours of face-to-face counselling in order to complete the course. We each had to find and organise the venues we would do this in, and I estimate that I was turned down by 50 different places due to inaccessibility.
In the end, I had to gain my counselling training by seeing clients in my own home. This not only made me feel isolated from the experience my peers were gaining, but also caused me to fall behind in the time frame that we were allocated.
From an outsiders’ perspective, this could be perceived as an unfortunate and unintentional form of exclusion, but that is exactly what access discrimination is.
It is still the case that, in society, assumptions are made about an individual’s intellectual capabilities based on their physical abilities. There have been several instances where I have been spoken over and undermined when people have assumed that, because I used a wheelchair, I must also have a learning difficulty.
On one occasion, when an ex-policeman came to my home to fit safety alarms, he assumed I attended a day centre for people with learning disabilities. At the time I was working hard studying towards a philosophy qualification in higher education, so I felt like my achievements had been undermined.
Without thinking, he had made a discriminatory value-judgement regarding my academic ability.
This is an everyday example of how people group together those with learning difficulties and people with physical disabilities. It illustrates how an underlying prejudice or belief can lead to discriminatory behaviour.
The idea of double discrimination is embedded in identity; it occurs when you belong to two or more marginalised groups that society rejects. In the case of disability, this would involve the impairment itself and race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, mental well-being and many other categories.
In my view, the danger of double discrimination that distinguishes it from other forms of discrimination is that it can have profound detrimental effects on a person’s psychological state.
Severe social isolation and feelings of worthlessness could lead to depression or ultimately break a person’s spirit.For example, women with disabilities actually experience higher rates of gender-based violence. Unfortunately, there is no straightforward solution to this, unless we all attempt to increase our social awareness and variety of experiences.
Has discrimination decreased over the years?
Overall, it can be said that we are witnessing some changes in the way that disability is perceived. One example of this involves how people with disabilities can now contribute economically, more so than before.
Previously, the contribution was mainly viewed as physical production and manual labour, etc. Now, I would argue that people are beginning to recognise that disabled people can contribute in a diverse range of ways. We have valuable and unique insights, as well as creativity and artistic flair.
It’s also a positive sign that many disability rights are being more enshrined in law and the perspectives of people with disabilities are being taken into account in a political framework. However, whilst we now recognise these rights, we do not enforce and maintain them strongly enough.
It is also undeniable that, in recent years more adaptations have been put in place for people with all types of disabilities. Yet there is always room for improvement to make sure all environments are as accessible as possible.
I completely accept that older buildings cannot always be adapted, but we should aim to ensure that all new modern buildings are created with the universal design model in mind as guidance for accessible places.
As each of my points has shown, even with every positive step forward there is still much work to be done. Whilst we’ve made a lot of progress in the UK, the campaign against discrimination towards disabled people is by no means complete.
By Rebecca Sherwood