Bloopers aren’t disablism; brutality is

Monday, February 18, 2008 0:32 | Filed in Disability, Equality

I think that a lot of non-disabled people are frightened by the language of disability. They’re worried about saying the wrong thing: using the term “handicapped” rather than “person with a disability”, worrying whether they will cause offense if they say “see you later” to a blind person and so on.

For the most part (while the term “handicapped” is frequently seen as offensive), disabled people are much more concerned about the way people are actually treated than the language that is used.

For example, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, as reported on the BBC’s disability site Ouch!, recently said:

During a live radio discussion yesterday about the poor condition of pavements in Belfast city centre, Mr Rodgers said the footpaths were difficult for disabled people to negotiate as well as “human beings”.The Belfast Telegraph

Wince. Now that’s something that’s really quite offensive, and yet no one took umbrage at it: the Mayor apologised unreservedly, saying that it was an early morning slip of the tongue, and asking anyone who had been offended to contact him. On the Ouch! site it basically seemed to raise a laugh and inspire a discussion on other disability related accidents of speech (which in itself is rather amusing as there is even a mix-up within that thread).

Anyone can make a genuine mistake, and say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and as long as people have good intentions, this isn’t generally something that’s held against them.

So that’s a blooper. That’s not evidence of disablism.

But would you perhaps argue that if you were to tip a disabled man — who has only partial use of his arms, and no feeling at all below the sternum — out of his wheelchair and onto the floor, that this might seem a little brutal? A little discriminatory?

But who on earth would do a thing like that? Well apparently that would be the US Police.

The surveillance video, released by the sheriff’s office, shows Dep Marshall-Jones walking behind Mr Sterner’s chair to tip it forwards until he falls to the floor.

Unable to brace his fall, Mr Sterner lands heavily and rolls onto his back, at which point Dep Marshall-Jones starts searching his pockets.

BBC News

Fortunately perhaps I can at least say that this behaviour isn’t condoned by the US police and a clear message has certainly been sent out, as the officer in question was booked — at the same station, suspended without pay and charged with felony abuse, and three other officers have been placed on “administrative leave” (whatever that is) while an investigation is carried out.

And similarly I recently read about what appears to have been institutionally-condoned horrible treatment to a disabled person, where the Ouch! blogger Elizabeth McClung described her problems with a vocational service specifically for people with disabilities.

Firstly, Elizabeth had telephoned to let the organisation know that she’d spent a night sleepless and in pain, and as such she was likely to be late for her meeting. They told her that if she was more than 15 minutes late, her meeting would be cancelled under their “Behaviour Training” policy to demonstrate the importance to disabled people of being on time.

I’m sorry? Behaviour training? She’s not some kind of an animal, you know. She’s an intelligent, articulate human, with human wants, needs, and human problems. She doesn’t need training to recognise the importance of being on time. That’s why she telephoned in the first place. But what I was particularly appalled by was that this “Behaviour Training” was specifically targetted at the disabled: able-bodied people get treated with respect, but disabled people get treated at best as second-class citizens and at worst as something subhuman.

And this is supposedly from an organisation specifically set up to help disabled people. What sort of civilised society would tolerate this?

One of the things I like about Elizabeth though is her downright refusal to take any shit from anyone; after she’d insisted (presumably loudly) disabled clients shouldn’t be treated as subhuman, the Site Manager wanted to be involved:

The Triumph Site Manager came in, wanted to know if there was a problem. I told her bluntly this time was allocated for me, my job hunting and I had no time right now to speak with her. If she wished to speak with me, please make an appointment….and don’t be late. I closed the door, forcing her out of the room. She was visibly upset (to make an understatement). And yet, I had followed Triumph’s own model? Was she in need of more “Behavior Training?Elizabeth McClung on BBC Ouch!

Then, when she wanted to make a complaint about the treatment, her case manager insisted that she write the complaint out herself, despite having limited hand function (which as her case manager with access to Elizabeth’s medical history she was fully aware of), because as her case manager later admitted, she had made her angry.

Again, what? Someone has upset you, so you withdraw the help that your job dictates you are supposed to provide for this person, in order to punish them? You’re refusing to do the work that you’re paid to do, simply because you’ve taken the huff?

If that’s the way you behave, you shouldn’t ever be allowed to work with any vulnerable people, you shouldn’t ever be allowed to have any authority, because you’re just a bully, pushing people around because you think you can get away with it.

That’s disablism. That’s brutality. Not a simple slip of the tongue where you say the wrong thing.

There is something so tempting, so easy in humiliating someone with a disability, particularly when you know their limitations. Take away their crutches, their wheelchair and watch them crawl.Elizabeth McClung

That’s the sort of society that would tip someone out of their wheelchair onto the floor. That’s the sort of society that Elizabeth experiences. And that’s why we need to fight for disability rights, and disability awareness (as well as combating sexism, racism, homophobia and so on). Because we think we live in a civilised society, but in reality we live in a society where people are allowed to behave like this.

PS if you want to read more of Elizabeth’s stuff, her blog Screw Bronze! is a good place to start. It’s not always comfortable reading but you can choose whether or not you want your eyes opened. Elizabeth isn’t even allowed to choose whether or not to lock her front door.

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4 Comments to Bloopers aren’t disablism; brutality is

  1. Gill says:

    February 20th, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    I can relate to the saying the wrong thing feeling. It never even crossed my mind and I would happily chat away to anybody, disability or no disability until I went to work for Local Govt where we were given guidelines as to what was acceptable and what was not acceptable.

    Having read through all that lot, every conversation became a minefield as you just knew Big Brother was watching you and waiting for you to make a wrong move so they could report you to Personnel.

    I’m sick to death of the do-gooders in this country who are constantly taking offense on behalf of other people, whether those other people are offended or not.

    Discrimination is just plain unacceptable and there are those who need to be taught this big time but I believe the majority in this country are not disablist. They are either uneducated or too frightened of putting a foot wrong.

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