IoS investigation: Our patronising approach to 10 million disabled Britons

Most of us say we believe in equality, but how we act suggests differently

Discrimination against disabled people is rife in the UK, according to new research. At worst, disabled people are subjected to abuse and violence. At best, even the most well-intentioned people can ignore or patronise them.

Anne Strike knows all about this. She bridles as she recounts how a well-meaning lady patted her – a 41-year-old award-winning Olympic athlete – on the head, as though she were a child. "I was shopping with my son and he was calling for me, and a woman in her fifties walked over and patted me on the head, saying, 'Is that your son? Oh, you must be very brave.' I couldn't believe it – it was so patronising."

The attitude of many British people, it seems, can be summed up in the "Does he take sugar?" syndrome, as disabled people are simply denied the basic right to speak up for themselves.

While patronising attitudes are commonplace, many choose simply to avoid people with disabilities altogether. A survey by the charity Scope highlights the gulf between the way in which the British believe they behave towards the disabled and the experiences of those who have a disability.

Most people – 91 per cent – believe disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else, but this does not translate into inclusiveness. Nine out of 10 Britons have never had a disabled person in their house for a social occasion and only one in five has worked with a disabled colleague.

Thousands of people gathered in Trafalgar Square in London yesterday for the Liberty festival, a celebration of disability rights that provides a showcase for disabled artists and performers. But many of the more than 10 million people categorised as disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions, live restricted, marginalised lives. Nearly 40 per cent of able-bodied Britons without disabled family members do not know a single disabled person, suggesting that society remains starkly segregated – 15 years after the Disability Discrimination Act, and many campaigns before and since.

When Strike moved to the UK from Kenya 10 years ago, she thought it would mark the end of a lifetime of prejudice. A bout of polio when she was two left her paralysed from the waist down, and many in her village believed her condition was a curse or a punishment from God. After using steel crutches and callipers, she arrived Britain hoping to get her first wheelchair, and equal treatment. "In Kenya they called me a cripple all the time. I haven't heard that since coming here, but people still treat you differently. Sometimes it's the way they look at you when they give you change in the shop, or speak to you as if you're hard of hearing."

Strike married her British partner, Norman, and settled in the UK. She is now a Paralympian wheelchair racer for Britain. In 2004 she became the first East African woman to compete in the Paralympics. While in some ways her story is extraordinary, her experience of casual prejudice is typical of that experienced by millions of disabled people every day in Britain.

For men and women such as Strike, the barriers are not so much ones of physical access, but mental. She says: "These are prejudices that are just so subtle, but they're there. I was once getting searched at an airport and someone said, 'Oh my God, I've never seen such a glamorous woman in a wheelchair before.' It's as if you shouldn't know about fashion or normal life. I want people to see beyond the chair."

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, said: "We want the government to work with us to look at ways of changing society's attitudes towards disabled people. Gradually attitudes do change, but it's a very slow process."

Mark Goldring, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, said: "There's a huge way to go.... There's still a level of hostility among some people, and there's indifference which means that a lot of hostility is tolerated."

Sometimes that hostility spills over into bullying, and even violence. Nine out of 10 people with a learning disability have been harassed or bullied, according to Mencap, suggesting that disability hate crime is vastly under-recorded. But figures that are recorded make for grim reading. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, in the two years up until the end of March 2009, 576 people were prosecuted for disability hate crimes; more than three-quarters of cases resulted in conviction.

Last month, Zena-Cheri Gormley, 21, and Laura Ramsey, 23, were each jailed for four and a half years for an attack on a disabled man in Gloucester, who was left with life-changing injuries. This is only one of many cases in which disabled people have been attacked, and, in June this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into disability hate crime.

Two weeks ago, Marie Reilly, 46, who suffers from spina bifida and multiple sclerosis, was attacked in her home in Bolton by a man who pushed her to the floor when she answered the door.

But there may be some small reason to be optimistic. Louise Dyson, director of VisABLE People, a talent agency for those with disabilities which she set up in 1993, said: "In the last couple of years I do think there's been a genuine change. Casting directors will consider disabled people for roles that aren't specifically disabled, and that never happened before."

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