“But I don’t see you as disabled, I see you as normal!”- Anonymous
I have had many people make this exclamation to me over the past 5 years. I’m sure if you have a disability, you will have had similar comments as well. Although this is intended in a kindhearted way, it’s actually a really problematic statement.
It’s offensive for a number of reasons:
- Disabled people are normal people!
- It creates a binary view of the disabled population which shows them as poor and worthy only of pity. A sort of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ mentality.
- It reinforces the idea that to be a disabled person you have to look a certain way.
Society has a problem. An elephant in the room, so to speak. Except, it’s not an Elephant.
It’s a Zebra.
There’s an enormous zebra in the living room of society. It’s giant, and it’s black and white, and it really shouldn’t be there.
Black and White
The general public often perceive disability in a certain way. Something which can be seen obviously. It is black and white. Disabled/Not Disabled. If the disability cannot be seen outwardly, it doesn’t exist – you are ‘normal’.
I don’t fit into the Zebra framework.
I have an impairment that fluctuates, I have good days and bad days. Some days I can live relatively independently with adjustments. On other days I can’t walk more than 5 steps. However everyday throughout the past 5 years I have experienced chronic pain and debilitating fatigue on varying levels, not to mention the struggles I’ve had with the variety of side-effects from my medication.
My chronic illness has impacted all aspects of my life from studying, to employment, to social life. People close to me know this, they have seen intimately, the barriers I face.
I don’t require the use of any mobility aids but I can’t walk far, if I try I pay the price. But when I’m out with friends that don’t know me very well, and I ask if we can take the bus or get a taxi, often people don’t understand, they think I’m faking or just being lazy. I used to give in and pay the price to ‘fit in’. Now, I will normally stand my ground.
Because I am neither ‘black or white’ in this Zebra framework, it is really difficult to ask for help to pull down those barriers. I know a lot of people with similar long-term health conditions who feel this way. Not truly accepted by the ‘able’ population, but until recently not established in the ‘disabled’ community either.
The disability rights movement has come a long way in the UK. It has secured equal rights laws; anti-discrimination acts; inclusion programmes. It has worked tirelessly to change the way we view disabled people from objects of pity, to people who deserve equal rights and an independent life. We have the Paralympics, the Invictus games; TV shows like The Last Leg. The movement is doing so well. This is all so great.
I am not trying to say that people who do have more obvious disabilities, are wrong or trying to make them feel bad.
I’m saying that there is much more work to be done. There is one huge barrier to take down and that is attitudes. Statements like the one at the beginning must be challenged. It represents just how far there is to go in challenging attitudes to disability. Disabled people can and should live normal lives, and ultimately they are normal.
Tied up with changing negative attitudes towards disabled people, is also changing attitudes as to what a disabled person might look like and who disabled people are.
We need to work together to challenge this Zebra framework that sees only a certain type of disability. The barriers this understanding of disability creates for people with hidden impairments must also be acknowledged and challenged.
An impairment doesn’t have to be obvious to experience the disabling effects of society.
Disability is not a zebra. It is not black and white.
Impairments come in all different shapes, sizes, and colours!
The disability we experience in society is not black and white, it is multicoloured!