Cloak of invisibility


I read this last week, and now I’m telling you to read it too. It’s a typical experience of somebody with physical disabilities that aren’t accompanied by convenient physical markers.

As a society we think we’re pretty enlightened and tolerant, and if we can see somebody has additional requirements we make allowances.

But wait a minute – we make allowances? How very generous and patronising of us. I bet we feel all good and smug about it too, don’t we? What good people we must be.

We make allowances for all shapes and sizes of disability. Just openly and publicly tell us how you’re defective and we will kindly go to all sorts of trouble to accommodate your awkwardness. Aren’t we nice?”

Ask about our hearing loop… Tell the cashier you need extra assistance… Just ring this bell… Come to the bar to ask for the key to the bathroom… Book in advance so our staff can help you on and off the train.

And here’s another thing about invisible disabilities. Actually I don’t need you to do a damn thing for me that you wouldn’t do for anyone else if you just gave it a moment’s thought. That’s right – the things I might need from you are easy to provide.

What’s that you say? Am I claiming to be disabled now? Well, yes, actually. Why am I not registered, or ringing a bell, or leaning on a stick? Because reasons, that’s why, chiefly that I don’t want to be defined by my defects. But for the purposes of this discussion I’ll use an example of my own.

I have a hearing problem. It can’t be cured. It can’t be mitigated with a hearing aid. I don’t sign. It’s not serious enough to warrant surgery or other investigation. It’s just a bloody nuisance, and one that I have lived with since my early teens. Incidentally, if someone you know admits to being a little deaf, don’t for the love of God riposte with “Pardon? *snigger*”. It’s not funny, and if the recipient of your humour was, for example, a dedicated musician at 13 who cried themselves to sleep for a week on getting the news, it will be staggeringly hurtful. Just saying.

What can you do for people like me?*
– You can make sure your meeting space is free of background noise like air conditioning, traffic hum, other people’s conversations.
– You can keep your face turned towards your audience so the sound carries in the right direction.
– You can stop covering your mouth when you’re speaking, so people who need to lip read can see what you’re saying.

And you know what’s beautiful about all these modifications? They cost you nothing, and they benefit everybody.

Another thing is asthma. I have it, but it’s rarely serious enough to disable me in the strictest sense. But when it is … it really really is. I can’t climb stairs. I can’t walk faster than a shuffle. Last time I had to hire a wheelchair for a fortnight. I can’t cope with aerosols like body spray and hairspray, and room fresheners make me turn green. If someone has this condition, or something with similar fallout, they need meeting rooms on the ground floor and not too much distance to cover. They need clean spaces without dust, smoke and harsh chemical perfumes. Are these things difficult to provide? Are they costly? They’re really not. If we did these things as a matter of course, everybody would benefit.

So often we think that to allow for ‘special cases’ we’re going to have to make a load of expensive and specialist modifications, and certainly I have heard this view applied to discussions about impact assessment in local government. The point is, it’s not all building ramps – sometimes the modification needed to make something accessible to all is something so simple that, if its considered early enough, before all the decisions are committed to, it will cost nothing to add. And it will make the whole project better as a result.

*Other than refraining from being a jerk, obviously.


About jargonaut

Unashamed geek lost in policy land. Frequently required to believe three impossible things before breakfast, and implement them by tea time.
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