I think one of my biggest frustrations with society in terms of disability is the naturally low expectations the public has for what disabled people can and indeed should achieve. While everyone talks about the equality of disabled people, the reality is we are perceived as inferior beings, less capable of achieving what most people want in life. I am often asked about aspects of my life, like if I like to go out, as if I was a child, and these are by my non-disabled professional peers who apparently know I am their equal.
An example of what I am talking about is the recent news about the supposed plight of James Sleight, a young man with Downs Syndrome, who went to a mainstream school, and is apparently being evicted from ‘his home’. His home is in reality, from what I can understand, a residential group home, a care service he is not a tenant of, where the one achievement that has been highlighted is the fact he lives with a flatmate of his age, who will be another service user who neither of them would have had a choice over. And now because his family are upset, we must all sign their petition to keep him in a service that we do not even know he is happy about. The media seems not to be interested in his quality of life, his aspirations or his goals, but just what his family wants. The most shocking comment I read was in The Independent, which implied he was too stupid to know who David Cameron was, despite wanting to meet him, or was that his family?
I have personally fought all my life to explain that despite having cerebral palsy and needing support from a personal assistant with everything I do, I lead as normal of a life as anyone can and in whatever normality is. I have the same level of choice as anyone else, which means I have the same level of responsibility as anyone else. Despite all the wonderful images of independent living promoted by the social care sector, it does not mean I have free choice, because no one has that. I can only go to the theatre if I can afford the tickets, have the time to go and so on.
The biggest mistake many social workers and other professionals make with me is when they tell me I can do anything I want within a service, since the reality is they have specific and low expectations of what I will want to do, and therefore they will be horrified when I actually do something they was neither expecting or willing to let happen. Professionals assume for disabled people, ‘going out’ means something like having a cup of coffee in town, but for me it means going whitewater rafting or seeing a musical in London.
Why must we assume disabled people expectations are limited and indeed good. When I lecture social work students, I like to challenge them to see how far they are willing to accept the true lifestyles of disabled people, even if that includes being a gangster. We will not have achieved true equality for disabled people until we can see them inspiring to achieve in all aspects of life, even if it is as a criminal. People must imagine what disabled people could achieve, and then take it a step further, and still further, until we can truly see disabled people as having the opportunity to do absolutely anything.
Unfortunately right now, this kind of equality is not on the agenda, as the 2010s will sadly be remembered as a period where the portrayal of disabled people as incapable inferior beings was strong and the damage that this was doing, in the name of fairness, was high. The fashionable hatred of ATOS is being used to justify the systematic prejudice of disabled people, often by disabled people themselves, in the same way racists use the fear of immigration to justify their prejudices.
Until we can see all disabled people as bundles of potential and assume with the right assistance and support, they can achieve or not achieve in the same way as anyone else, we should stop pretending that a fair society, in terms of looking after people deemed to be too weak to be considered full citizens, as anything to do with true equality and equal opportunities, as to achieve that, we must demand the most of everyone.