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Wary of difference

If it's time the able-bodied face their anxiety about disability and look past it.

india Updated: Aug 21, 2012 23:10 IST

I broke my leg a while back. I wasn't too clever on crutches so I used a wheelchair. I went into a restaurant with my family and was shocked that the waitress looked over me and only addressed my husband and daughter.


Perhaps before I had that experience I might have acted like the waitress — I might have, in my embarrassment of not knowing how to behave, ignored me altogether. Over the next few weeks it will, in London especially, be impossible to ignore the athletes participating in the Paralympics, but will that affect public attitudes to disability more generally? Why can able-bodied people be so awkward with others who happen to be differently able?

In an experiment in which able-bodied people were asked to sit next to a disabled person, half were first allowed to stare at the disabled person through a two-way mirror and half were not. All were then measured how closely they sat next to the disabled person. They found that those who were allowed to stare sat closer than those who were introduced without first having had that opportunity. This suggests that wanting to avoid disabled people comes from a lack of previous exposure to them — there seems to be, if not a fear of the unknown or of difference, at least an anxiety about it. There is a conflict of what the able-bodied think they ought to feel about disabled people and the actual emotions experienced.

Disabled people experience hate, guilt, patronising attitudes, avoidance and persecution. Why? Although we can measure behaviour, finding out why that behaviour occurs is harder, as we tend to give the answers from the point of view of the person we would like to be rather than face up to who we actually are.

Working as a psychotherapist, I have found it is often a child's whining or crying that triggers rage in a parent because it is easier to fall back on anger than to awaken memories of one's own childhood vulnerability, or to acknowledge the shame of feeling impotent in a situation we feel incapable of making better. So if we perceive or imagine vulnerability in another person, it may be more comfortable for us to persecute or patronise than to empathise or accept.

Humans are innately wary of those who are different, and to feel that anxiety is vulnerable-making. Rather than acknowledge our own anxiety, most of us would rather ignore or deny our response, or go even further and marginalise, blame and persecute those we feel to be the source of our ill feeling. Maybe we'll try to justify it by saying disabled people cost us money, or slow us down.

I hope the more access and opportunity granted to disabled people, the more familiar they will become to those who are able-bodied — and that we'll learn to look past disability and see the multifarious people we have been unused to acknowledging.