Winds of Change: Are You Being Rude to People With Disabilities Without Knowing It?

Erin Kelly looks at a series of ads intended to help people learn to be more comfortable interacting with folks with disabilities, and to help nurture empathy.    

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When I was a kid, I thought learning how to ride a bike was one of the most awkward things in the world. I didn’t really see the purpose of it — partly because I’d never used my legs in that way before, and because I knew that riding a bike wouldn’t ease the blow of not being able to walk.

I had a sinking feeling it would only make the emotional aspect of the learning process more difficult. I knew I had to put one foot in foot in front of the other, pushing down on the pedals to move forward. Every time I did, however, the more I could see that I was right.

It took me a few years to gain the momentum I needed to propel myself forward on my fire engine red bike — and because it was a handicap-accessible bike — it had handles that moved accordingly with the pedals to help with coordination.

It was a movement — a pattern I wasn’t used to. I did it for exercise, but it had a certain rhythm to it that has rippled through many aspects of my life — particularly when it comes to experiencing awkward moments inadvertently brought on by my cerebral palsy.

I think it would be easy to blame others for any number of instances where I’ve felt belittled or “thrown under the bus”. It would be easy to ridicule them and perhaps take all the frustration in the world out on them. However, I have to bear in mind the fact those are the same people who may have never been around someone with a disability before — or may have simply had a bad first experience encountering such an individual.

When you look at the world through that lens, it’s very much like riding a bike. Each step you choose to take to break through the thick, ever-present wall built by a disability is the pedal that propels you forward. In fact, it seems as if many aspects of society follow that pattern. It’s a process that can either lead to progress or destruction — and when it comes to the global uprising of violence towards the disabled, there are unfortunately no exceptions.

For more than two decades, cities across Wales, Great Brittan and the New England states have seen a staggering number of disability-related deaths. In 2013 alone, that figure rose more than ten percent. Moreover, a recent report from Disabled World discusses the possible roots of violence toward the disabled, citing oppression as a factor:

“The concept of ‘oppression’ used in in this context, can be described as stemming from the intentional or unintentional behavior of people that reduce the potential for others to be fully human — or to put it another way — actions and behavior that make people feel ‘less’ human.”

While word of this type of atrocity is still very much kept in the dark, the UK has recently taken steps to perhaps begin the process of change in “ending the awkward”—launching a series of short videos.

The videos — currently airing on UK television — put an abled-bodied person in a simple situation with a disabled person. They’re short, casual encounters or exchanges that may not seem awkward to “The Average Joe” — but when they happen to someone with a disability —awkward doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of self-confidence draining out of one’s body.

For more than two decades, cities across Wales, Great Brittan and the New England states have seen a staggering number of disability-related deaths. In 2013 alone, that figure rose more than ten percent

I think the concept of riding a bike is as metaphoric as you can get here. It shows that the idea of putting one foot in front of the other and asserting oneself in order to move forward is universal — not just applying to the momentum of a thing on wheels. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that instead making reference to the process and rhythm of change — a change that the UK desperately needs.

When I first watched those videos, I saw a bit of myself. I often find myself tangled in some version of those situations as someone with cerebral palsy. By the time I get to address the situation, however, the incident has already occurred and the person has walked away — either because they’re short on time or they themselves feel awkward around me.

Such instances make me ask myself, ‘What if videos like these aired in the States? Would people react — or perhaps even take heed — the way that the producers of the video intended?’

I think that observation raises a question of global reach. If these videos stay on the air long enough in the UK, will they create enough of a buzz for the country to take legal action against violence that results in unreasonable death? If so, will the impact of that action spread to places such as India — where similar deaths occur on a daily basis?

Little has changed since the resurgence of disability hate crime, but it’s going to take a little momentum and a big push before we see a change in the UK — and in time, perhaps the world.

It almost always starts as one awkward moment, but its effects can manifest into a lifetime of pain. That only leaves one question: How many deaths is too many?

 

Photo credit: Taber Andrew Bain/flickr 

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About Erin Kelly

Erin M. Kelly is a columnist, writer, and freelance editor with Cerebral Palsy who wants to be recognized for her work rather than her disability. She’s a 2009 graduate of Penn State Altoona, where she majored in Letters, Arts and Sciences. During her senior year, she was hired as a columnist for The Altoona Mirror, the daily newspaper in Altoona, PA. Her column entitled, “The View From Here,” runs monthly and addresses in a light-hearted, humorous manner the challenges she faces daily. Writing is her window to the world and gives her the opportunity to bring what’s inside out. Find Erin on Twitter @WriterWheels.

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