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Disability 'Are one in four people that I meet uncomfortable talking to me?'

We need to give people the time and opportunity to become comfortable around those with disabilities, writes Keith Hayes.

TWENTY FIVE PER CENT of British people feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person. It’s not beyond reason to suggest that the figure is probably similar in Ireland.

As a man with a disability, it might be easy to be hurt by this statistic, to think that one in four people that I meet are uncomfortable talking to me, to judge them as prejudiced in some way. But let’s take a step back.

Let’s firstly assume that a lot of people feel uncomfortable talking to strangers. Why should people be any more comfortable talking to strangers who happen to have a disability? That should knock off a couple of percent.

I’ve seen real progression

Secondly, let’s think about how far we’ve come. I have had a disability all my life and I have seen real progression in Ireland in terms of how people with disabilities are viewed and treated. We have definitely moved away from the stigma of the “poor person” with a disability.

I bet we can all name at least two words that were used as recently as the 1980s to describe people with disabilities that no reasonable person would say aloud now. That’s not saying we don’t have progress to make, but societal change happens slowly and we’re going in the right direction.

The fact is that the experience of a child with a disability now is much different to when I grew up. Most children now will spend at least some of their time in mainstream school, they will (probably) attend summer camps, there will (usually) be a toilet they can access in a public place, and there will (sometimes) be a parking space for their parent or carer to use.

Acknowledging we all have different needs

The more people with disabilities are encouraged and enabled to integrate into society from childhood the more absolute those statements will be and the smaller the gap will become.

Maybe sometime in the near future we won’t be talking about “people with disabilities” as a category of person, but we might just talk about people and acknowledge that we all have different needs. Then we will all become peers and this will feed into education, work, social life and so on.

There is no overnight cure for societal progression, we must watch and wait for it to happen, but we’re getting there.

But we can’t wait for society to include us.  Strides are made by pushing through barriers. I think, as a person with a disability, I have to put myself out there more and speak up for myself rather than take the easy option of hiding behind a personal assistant or family member.

Building relationships with people

I have a speech impediment so when I go shopping I usually bring a list to hand in, or allow my personal assistant to do it for me as it can take people a while to understand what I’m saying, which can be uncomfortable for me and the other person.

But what use is that? I can speak, so I will. I tested it out on my local butcher recently. The butcher had to ask me several times what I had said but by speaking myself, I give him confidence that he can speak to me and understand me. This builds a relationship. It also shows the butcher that I can think for myself.

He won’t be uncomfortable the next time I go in and neither will I. Maybe he won’t be uncomfortable the next time he needs to speak to a person with a disability either.

That’s why there is no judgement of the 25% from this person with a disability. Judgement is the enemy of inclusion. Let’s give people the time and opportunity to become comfortable.

Keith Hayes is Disability Coordinator at Enable Ireland.

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