WHAT girl wants a man who is fonder of his guide dog than of her? This strange question is posed by a new advertisement for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, in the form of a letter from Beryl to her blind ex-boyfriend Christopher, explaining why she decided to walk out on him. 'After your training,' she writes, 'you came back a changed man . . .

'Instead of the nice quiet boy you were, you now talk out of your turn . . . think of it, you might have had a wife to look after you instead of this new life. When I wanted to take you somewhere you always had that damn dog with you.'

Beryl says she now has a new blind boyfriend, Clive. She implores Christopher not to persuade Clive to get a guide dog too: 'I shall break my heart if Clive gets like you.' So, if a blind person gets a guide dog, the people that helped him in the past feel redundant and do a runner?

It seems odd to question a guide dog's value. And what's the point of an ad that takes an afternoon and a PhD to understand? But charities for the disabled face a difficult task when they advertise. They have to portray the disabled as different enough to need our help, but avoid making them look in need of pity.

'I suppose people did have to work harder than usual to understand the message,' says Caroline McCaffrey of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. 'It has been suggested that Beryl's got a screw loose. And perhaps we should have mentioned that the advert was a letter written in 1944 and kept in the archives for 50 years. But we wanted to do something different, something that would make people think and talk.'

It certainly does that. In fact it took three of us 45 minutes and several detailed readings to interpret the message.

'What they're trying to say,' concluded Diane Bosworth, visually impaired and a secretary at the RNIB, 'is that Christopher can lead a normal life with his dog and he doesn't need Beryl so much. But it's damn complicated. I wouldn't give a donation if I were a fully- sighted person and I read an advert like that.'

'I don't agree,' said Richard Lane, a 26-year-old, tall, handsome blind man in a smart green suit. 'I think it's a very positive message. It's telling us that a guide dog gives you an enormous amount of confidence, like Norton has given me.' He reached down to stroke his golden labrador. 'They matched him up very carefully with me. I needed a dog who could cope with my hectic social life and my busy days as a public relations officer. Anyway, the advertisement makes a change from the typical picture of a blind man with his guide dog. But I will admit Beryl sounds like she's got a few hang-ups and the message is pretty subliminal.'

Now Christopher has his dog he can lead a full and active life - 'that's what we want people to understand about us,' says Diane Bosworth. 'We are the same as everyone else, we're part of the world whether you like it or not.'

Charities for the disabled face a double challenge in their advertising campaigns. They need to raise funds and promote positive awareness at the same time. 'It's a tightrope job,' explains Paul Fawcett of the Spastics Society.

Over the past 30 years, the way in which people with disabilities have been depicted in fundraising ads and campaigns to heighten public awareness has changed dramatically.

'Take a look at this,' says Paul, handing over a poster from the early Seventies. 'It's horrific.' The poster depicts a little girl, dressed in dull colours, with clumsy crutches almost bigger than she is. The caption reads 'Please help Spastics.' It is her 'otherness', her helplessness, her dependency, that are stressed.

According to Paul Fawcett, people are still more likely to donate if they feel a tug on the heartstrings. 'If we send out a leaflet with a picture of Martin who's 40, in residential care and doing just fine, we're much less likely to get donations than if we show a picture of Johnny who's six and can't walk. So we try to separate our funding campaigns from our campaigns to increase public awareness.'

The Spastics Society has attempted to gain the public's understanding of cerebral palsy over the past few years with increasingly creative and thought- provoking posters. 'What we want to show,' says Paul Fawcett, 'is that people with cerebral palsy are the same as everyone else, but with a disability. We want to show that they can be just as attractive, sexy, confident and capable as everyone else.

'That's one of the reasons we're changing the name of our organisation from The Spastics Society to Scope. The word 'spastic' has come to have such negative connotations. It's also why we've come up with one of our most recent posters.'

The poster to which Paul is referring shows a young man in a wheelchair saying: 'I like to do everything I can on my own. Except sex. It's disgusting. There are still people who'll be surprised to learn that someone with cerebral palsy has sex . . . If more people understood what cerebral palsy is they'd realise that it doesn't stop you being a person, it doesn't stop you being capable of many things, including feelings, emotions and desires.'

But surely the able-bodied have passed the stage of being embarrassed and awkward around disability? James Rye, head of PR for the Spastics Society, says that sadly this is not the case. 'Changes in attitudes to people with disabilities are imperceptibly slow.

'Last year we ran an advertisement for the Cerebral Palsy Helpline in bus shelters. We got loads of obscene calls, kids phoning and saying things like, 'f*** off you spastic'. But we have a duty to plug on with advertising.'

Many people are still uncomfortable when confronted with the disabilities of others. Their awkwardness gives rise to the 'does he take sugar' syndrome from which the Radio 4 programme for the disabled takes its name.

Shirley Segal, an attractive, eloquent blonde in her early fifties has experienced this attitude. She has Multiple Sclerosis and is both the Chairperson of the MS Telephone Counselling Service and the Vice Chairperson of The Disability Association of Barnet.

'A while back, I went shopping for clothes with my husband. I was in my wheelchair looking through some blouses. The assistant asked my husband: 'What exactly does she want?' He said: 'Ask my wife.' She continued to ignore me and asked my husband what colour I wanted. I just got up out of my chair, scratched under my arms like a monkey, stuck out my tongue and stared at her. She said: 'I'm sorry, I'll never do that again.' '

Another example is the young man in a wheelchair who wanted to eat at a pizzeria in Leeds. A member of staff turned him away with the words 'We don't want your kind in here.' The young man's mother called the manager, who apologised profusely and sent him several meal vouchers. When he returned to the restaurant he was turned away again.

A recent outburst from Arthur Tunstall, the Australian Vice President of the Commonwealth Games, brought the issue into the headlines. Talking about disabled athletes, he said: 'I do not believe they should be integrated with the games. I can tell you it's an embarrassment.'

Press coverage of these remarks has done more to heighten the public's awareness of the problem than all the adverts to date - certainly more than the long-winded letter from Beryl to Christopher could ever do.

(Photograph omitted)

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