Snéha Khilay shares her experience of attitudes towards disabled people. She reflects on how much progress we have made in terms of disability equality and why disability discrimination still remains deep rooted.
Some time ago, I went to a large well known furniture/accessories shop with my parents and sister. My mother can only walk a few paces and increasingly needs a wheel chair. So, we parked my car in the disabled parking area and my parents waited whilst I went to reception to request a wheel chair. The receptionist asked to retain my car keys or driving licence whilst I used their wheelchair.
As I didn’t have my driving licence with me, I explained that I needed to take the wheel chair to the car, so my mother could get into the wheelchair and I needed the keys to lock the car. The Assistant ‘allowed’ me to do this so long as I returned immediately and handed over my car keys, presumably as ‘collateral’ in case I stole the chair…
After shopping, I wheeled my mother back to the car; she had to hold the wing mirror tightly and stand, whilst I rushed back to reception to recover my car keys so she could get into the car. I waited a good ten minutes before being served. When I complained how inappropriate it was to require car keys as a deposit, the receptionist was rude and aggressive. By now, I was getting agitated, watching my distressed mother hanging onto the wing mirror, whilst my father looked on helplessly. I was just glad it wasn’t raining…
I later telephoned the Head Office of the Furniture Shop to discuss our experience only to be told by Customer Service that any complaints need to be in writing….
The definition of Institutional Discrimination, a spin off of Institutional Racism is: ‘A collective failure of an organisation to provide appropriate and professional service to people because of their differences. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and stereotyping which disadvantage minority groups’.
From my perspective, the shop’s general attitude (which to date I still can’t make sense of) falls under this Institutional Discrimination definition. Not only were processes to obtain a wheelchair inappropriate (and unnecessary), their attitude and behaviour upset us all and this experience made me wonder what progress we have actually made regarding Disability Equality?
I recently collected a friend from hospital, where she was recovering from a stroke, to take her to a nearby restaurant as part of her rehabilitation. As this was her first time in a public place for some time she was understandably anxious as she walked slowly into the restaurant on a Zimmer frame. We sat down and the young waiter focused his attention on me with no acknowledgement of my friend, asking me what she would like to drink. I responded ‘Why don’t you ask her?’ He merely glanced at her and took the order whilst concentrating on his menu pad.
People are surprised that the ‘Does he take sugar?’ approach still exists. I sadly know it does. Disabled people and their supporters continue to be oppressed by a non-disabled world.
Lead advocates of Disability Rights state that the position of, and discrimination against, disabled people is socially created and has little to do with impairments. Disabled people are made to feel as if its their fault that they are different. As one colleague in a wheel chair explained “Through fear, ignorance and prejudice, barriers and discriminatory practices develop which further disable us…”
Prejudicial attitudes toward disabled people and, indeed, all minority groups are not inherited. Rather, they are learned through contact with the prejudice and ignorance of others.
This approach suggests those disabled people’s individual and collective disadvantage is due to a complex form of institutional discrimination as fundamental to our society as sexism or racism. To challenge discrimination against disabled people, we must begin in our schools and take proactive measures in other institutions.
“Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings.” – Helen Keller
“….If disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place.” – Susan Wendell
Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. She specialises in supporting organisations in meeting their statutory Equality and Diversity requirements. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. She conducts independent investigations and mediation for organisations into allegations of bullying and harassment. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk