We don’t need another hero...or do we?

2009-02-06 by

Many charities’ and government campaigns use slogans that focus on disabled people’s abilities. Disabled high achievers are celebrated and their experience used to inspire others and bring attention to disability discrimination.

Sometimes in my training class I use an ice-breaking exercise called ‘Guess the disability’: a list of famous people who are not usually associated with any impairment (there’s no Stevie Wonder, for example) is examined by trainees who have to guess what disability each ‘star’ has. This is to help participants explore their own perception of disability: do they feel differently about it when they find that Tom Cruise has severe dyslexia, Jodie Foster wears hearing aids, or that Sir Steve Redgrave has Type 1 Diabetes?

This exercise has been useful for me as a trainer because I often work with participants who regard disability as a dreadful and alien subject. This exercise acts as an icebreaker and helps people realise that disability is far more common than they may think. The trouble is that I do sometimes wonder if by using this exercise I am encouraging a harmful stereotype of disabled people – the idea that they are all heroes who have overcome some terrible misfortune.

The focus on ability in various campaigns is well intentioned but seems to imply that we are valuable only when we do exceptional things like run a business with a £1m turnover, or win three Olympic medals. There are disabled people who make fantastic achievements and those stories are absolutely inspirational.

However, the great majority of us are not the next Richard Branson or Tanni Gray-Thompson and the tests we face on a daily basis are less likely to grab headlines. I mean things like inaccessible buildings, negative discrimination, unprofessional services, and general lack of awareness as I experienced when a bank employee once shouted at me through his protective glass because I didn’t hear what he had said to me the first time. Then, when I told him that I wear hearing aids and the loop system didn’t work, he shrugged and said ‘sorry I don’t know how to operate that’.

There is nothing to celebrate here – no celebrity status, no inspirational stories and no glittering careers – just people getting by. Highlighting ability may be inspiring for some, but on its own it doesn’t educate enough, it doesn’t really raise awareness of disabled people’s human rights.

Instead, let’s have a campaign focusing on the barriers we face every day because as a society we can do something about them. We can provide accessible buildings, transport and facilities. We can train people and help change their attitudes. We can educate schoolteachers, university professors and care workers so they learn to empower disabled people, not do things for them. Once the daily barriers are removed then hopefully we can stop being heroes and just get on with our lives.

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