Leading article: Prejudice is the worst handicap

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to a survey, one third of us think wheelchair users are stupid. And not only are they stupid, they complain too much - more than one in five say that the disabled should be seen and not heard, because they already have equal rights and have no cause to command any special attention. The same proportion feel awkward in the presence of a disabled person - as if disability is somehow infectious.

Liberal opinion is no doubt shocked at this level of prejudice. There are some eight million registered disabled, a huge figure even allowing for some false benefit claimants. Since this is almost one in seven of the population, one might assume that we mix pretty regularly. Yet over half of the 1,000 people questioned in the survey say that they have no regular contact with anyone disabled - a figure that rises to 60 per cent among under-35s. Prejudice is born of ignorance. With so much ignorance about the lives of the disabled, it is little wonder that the response is thus.

Our attitude to the disabled is a bizarre mixture of admiration and contempt. We all admire those plucky disabled marathon runners. The disabled Olympics is watched with an awed fascination. And yet, according to the survey, more than 40 per cent of us think that it is "virtually impossible" for the disabled to get a job, and a third say that they should not expect to be able to use public transport. Perhaps this is why one of the disabled people who took part in a companion survey said he wanted to shout out, "I am alive, don't ignore me."

These findings help to explain why the debate on disability benefits has been so unsatisfactory. The scale of the disability benefit bill - pounds 23.5bn a year - and our confused attitude means that allegations of widespread fraud are accepted almost without question. It is perfectly proper to review the process and ensure that the money is being spent appropriately. Indeed, it is curious that the level of claimants rises so steeply in unemployment blackspots. Only last week, however, a committee set up with the intention of proving fraud could find very little significant evidence.

But this is about more than how we allocate money. It is about prejudice. Most prejudices break down when reality hits home. The reality is that many things the able-bodied take for granted - public transport, access to cinemas and theatres, air travel and shopping - are at best an obstacle course and at worst well-nigh impossible. So long as our attitudes remain at the level shown in the survey things are unlikely to change.

Long-term approaches are more likely to bear fruit. Groups such as Scope and the representatives of Down's Syndrome children have long argued that sending children with special needs to their own schools, although done with the best of motives, can be deeply demoralising, reinforcing the idea that they are different. They have a point. What we learn in childhood stays with us, and if we learn that the disabled cannot cope with a normal school then it is no surprise that we think they cannot cope with a normal life.

But it is not special schools as such that are the problem. Rather, as the parents who protested at Downing Street yesterday argued, it is the rigid, bureaucratic application of individual local education authorities' policies - some favour special schools, some do not - that causes heartache. There are no pat solutions. Every child is different, and should be treated as such.

The more extreme disability rights campaigners use words like "apartheid" to describe their situation. One's first response is to bridle at the exaggeration. But the attitudes revealed in this survey show that it is nearer to truth than fiction. If the idea of community is to be more than a mere slogan, we need to begin by addressing our own prejudices, and debate how we can make the disabled full participants.