By Julie-Ann Sherlock 

Historically, people with disabilities were often whispered about, poorly treated and looked at with fear. This perplexed me. I had a classmate, Margaret, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. She needed some assistance at school, including using the bathroom, so we all helped her.

Through this, we got to learn about the challenges that people with disabilities can face while still seeing Margaret as a person and very much a part of our school.

But even with the hands-on experience of struggling to manoeuvre a wheelchair in a cramped toilet or witnessing exclusion, I can’t fully grasp how challenging life can be for people with disabilities. 

Years later, I broke my ankle while working in a sub-office across a busy street from our main office. My desk was downstairs, but the toilet was upstairs. I couldn’t do stairs. I had to hobble across the street, dodging traffic, when I needed to use the facilities. This is not a fair comparison to people who live with a disability, but it did really make me think about how often we let down a large sector of our society by having inaccessible facilities. 

With disabled people making up approximately 15% of the global population, are we being sufficiently inclusive? Are we making the lives of people with disabilities less challenging? Personally, I think we still have much to do to address inequity, inaccessibility and show we care. 

Changing Our Thinking

One of the first things we can all do is change the way we think about disabilities. Part of altering our mindsets comes through our use of language. Where once words such as handicapped or special needs were acceptable catch-all terms, things have changed. Saying disabled people or a person with disabilities is more respectful, but remember to see the person and not just the disability.  

Previously people would refer to wheelchair-bound or being confined to a wheelchair, now the preferred terminology is “wheelchair user” as it rebalances the relationship and points out that the chair is a tool rather than an identity. It may seem slightly facetious to focus on language, but when you adapt the words used, you alter your thought patterns and start to see past the disability to the person. 

Accessibility Issues

Take a look around your town or city, and you will see broken pavements, cars parked blocking footpaths and store entrances that are inaccessible for disabled people. If we are non-disabled, we rarely give it much thought or may feel mildly inconvenienced. However, if using a wheelchair, having to negotiate uneven, broken surfaces or go onto roads to pass a carelessly parked car, is dangerous. Inaccessible shops, restaurants, bars or other premises send a message that the wheelchair user or person with a disability is of lesser value as a consumer and underlines a societal disregard for inclusion. 

Sure, most places now offer accessible parking and city planners are continually striving to make our localities more inclusive with ramps or textured footpaths that aid visually impaired people etc., but if society remains inconsiderate of people with disabilities, things won’t change. Don’t be that dick that parks in the accessible parking space or on the pavement, even if you are just running into the store for a minute. 

Inclusion At Work

Companies are improving accessibility and implementing ways to make spaces work for everyone, but there may still be some intrinsic failings when it comes to inclusion. For a fully inclusive workplace, people with disabilities must be employed and have the same opportunities to grow and progress in their jobs as all employees. With approximately one in four Americans having a disability, companies that exclude people with disabilities are not only morally bankrupt but also miss out on a significant sector of the talent pool. 

Social Inclusion

When it comes to dating and social lives, many people with disabilities often have extra struggles to face. We all have our preferences on life partners and friends, but by excluding someone with a disability, we are missing out on someone who could bring so much to our lives. Treat everyone as an equal, don’t discriminate and make your dating or friendship circles as inclusive as possible.

For some, holding a door to allow a wheelchair user into a building is an inconvenience or having to park further away from the shopping mall door is a hassle. In reality, it is just good manners and being considerate. You should always hold the door for people, step back to allow others to exit a lift or public transport before trying to board and be aware that someone near you may have issues that are not obvious. Not every disability is visible or apparent. 

By being kinder, more mannerly and respectful, we can make everyone feel more included and valued. Our society urgently needs to redress the imbalances of disability, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. Do your part, be more inclusive, and your life will be happier and brighter for embracing all members of society.