I’m going to share a couple of episodes that might help to explain to able-bodied Britons why it is so maddening, infuriatingly, crushingly … bollocks … for those of us with disabilities who live alongside you. I’m struggling for another word to appropriately describe it, so please forgive the Anglo Saxon. Believe me, it often gets a lot worse when I get back home after venturing out.
Both these incidents happened to me. But I think they speak more generally to the disabled experience.
They’re fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things. But it’s the trivial things that tend to mount up and detonate in fury before leaving the wreckage of despair in their wake.
One involved an individual and ended up being quite amusing. The other involved a local authority, Waltham Forest, and is the worst kind of example of Buggins pushing poison with their pen.
First, the individual. I’ve written before of the abuse, unwelcome commentary and patronising “praise” that I’m faced with every time I use a wheelchair for exercise.
The last of those can be the worst because it involves people using words like “champ” and “bud” in the sort of tone you more commonly hear used by people when they have a three-year-old with a half-finished plate of broccoli in front of them.
“What are you training for,” the bloke in the car said, as I was reaching the top of the hill on my usual route. Here we go, I thought, next he’ll be suggesting that Team GB’s Paralympic scouts will soon be searching east London for a middle-aged bloke carrying a few extra pounds. Then he’ll call me “bud”.
Needless to say, nobody ever says this sort of stuff to able-bodied joggers. Or at least the male ones. I’m aware that female joggers also have unnecessary crap to put up with.
“I’m not training for anything. I’m just exercising,” I responded sourly, and turned up the appropriately angry rap music (Public Enemy in case you were interested). He nonetheless continued to talk at me as I resumed my wheeling, and something snapped. The combined weight of a million patronising and/or insulting comments broke the dam in my mind.
I zipped around his car and turned to face him with my middle finger at the ready for the appropriate salute after I’d told him to “go f- yourself”.
And then I spotted the wheelchair on his front passenger seat. At that point, I thought it might be a good idea to remove the headphones. It turned out that he was seeking to gauge my interest in joining the London Wheelchair Triathlon Club. I apologised profusely, but I didn’t need to. Because, of course, he got it. He’d had the same comments. He’d suffered the same frustration.
As for Waltham Forest, well it seems to have decided that the best way to make up for the lack of funds from central government is to soak disabled visitors. Welcome to our borough. Did you know our cripple tax is now payable by mobile phone?
Returning from the Empire cinema, I was horrified and mystified to see a parking ticket attached to my car in the disabled bay I’d used. I stopped to take a look. Blue badge, clearly displayed. Time of arrival, noted on said badge. I’d not overstayed. So boxes all ticked.
Why was there a ticket? I had to hunt around for quite some time to finally find the answer. It turned out that the bay had been “withdrawn” because someone was working on the adjacent building. I’m not sure why that was necessary but we’ll park that. Actually, perhaps we shouldn’t. Waltham Forest will have a ticket ready.
The council had, of course, cynically hidden news of the withdrawal on a tiny notice that had been completely invisible from my vehicle, and from my chair, when I arrived.
It got better still, when I complained that they might have considered putting a notice at wheelchair height, which I think qualifies as a reasonable adjustment under the Equalities Act, or even used, you know, bollards.
Some pen pusher actually had the temerity to say they “empathised with me” while turning down my appeal with a lot of mealy mouthed bilge. The latter amounted to saying, “It’s your responsibility to check every blue badge space in the UK to ascertain whether we’ve withdrawn it for no good reason before you go out or you’ll be paying the Waltham Forest cripple tax.”
This is why many disabled people don’t. Go out that is. Buses are a hostile environment and tubes/trains are awkward at best, more often impossible.
Having an able-bodied person “empathise” while picking my pocket was foully offensive. Worst still, this came from a Labour council. You know, the party that would have us believe it cares for the underdog and is determined to fight discrimination even while its councils clearly practice it.
Problems like these are actually easily solvable. They just require that individuals treat disabled people as human beings rather than freaks, as most do. There’s a sizeable minority for whom the phrase freaks would be better directed at.
Institutions, meanwhile, simply need to be shamed into practising what they preach. You’ll find plenty of flowery language about diversity and inclusion on Waltham Forest’s website, but rather less about how that’s subverted by sneaky tricks.
(PS I realise that those tricks aren’t just deployed against disabled drivers, but as I said, we often lack any practical alternatives.)
The problem with disabled life in Britain is that stories like these ought to be exceptions. But they’re not. They’re common. There’ll be another one next week. There’ll be several thousand of them.