The Fear of Disability Keeps People Safe

As a child I remember all those public service adverts aimed at children to keep us safe, and in particularly the Green Cross code. The message of the Green Cross code was simply, cross the road safely or you may be killed or become injured, or even worse, end up disabled. Those were not the words used but they were the sentiment because whether we understand it or not, the fear of disability is used to keep people safe. I would go further and argue that the fear of sickness and disability is used to control how people behave in terms of the risks they are willing to take, adding the limits to what society finds acceptable.

This fear of disability in its widest definition worked fine until the 1970s, but now we have an era where disabled people, including myself, want to be fully included into society, and are trying to challenge the prejudices towards us. While on one level we have achieved a better understanding of disability and people have accepted the principles of disabled people having rights and independent living, it is often just skin deep and has not changed the deep rooted prejudices towards disabled people.

Many people’s reactions to the welfare reforms have shown their prejudices towards disabled people, and indeed many welfare activists have consciously used the fear of disability has an argument to keep benefits as they are by arguing disability could happen to anyone at anytime, and no one would like that. The problem with this argument is how can society include people into mainstream society that are the representation of their own fears? This means that while disabled people have won the right to be discussed in the way they find acceptable, it does not mean they have won the deep rooted changes in attitudes required for an inclusive society.

The reality is that whether I like it to not, there does need to be a level of self-interest in personal survival and an unwillingness to deliberately risk sickness or disability to avoid the breakdown of society as we understand it. This however needs to be within a mature understanding of the duality of sickness and disability as being accepted by society but still something to avoid if possible. This is why out of all the liberation movements, like gender, race and sexuality, disability has been the most complex to achieve, because of its undesirability.

While we may be unable to remove the fear of disability, it is important we understand it exists out there and within ourselves, and start to have the ability to discuss our true feelings in a mature and constructive manner, so as a society we can reach a new understanding of sickness and disability through honesty and openness as opposed to politically correct sound bites and a degree of pity and patronising behaviour that masks people’s fears.

I try to improve the situation myself by being as open, honest and approachable as I can in an effort to breakdown barriers and let people ‘get close up’ to a ‘real live disabled person’. I have always been happy to talk in detail about my situation and answer any questions people have, however direct or personal they may be, because I believe it is better people have the opportunity to dispel the myths they have about disabled people. I do not expect every disabled person to do the same and indeed I have chosen to do it myself so other disabled people can have the privacy I never really had anyway. This is also why I put a lot about myself on my website, not because I think I am more important than anyone else, but to give people a better insight into who I am so they may understand disability better.

The fear of disability is something we have to accept because it does keep people safe, but by being more honest and open about its existence, we can rise above it and improve the way society can embrace the inclusion of disabled people as fully contributing citizens.

from Simon Stevens


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