How to behave with disabled people: A new guide tells you what to do and what not to do

If you're unsure, you're not alone, says wheelchair user Scott Jordan Harris. Now a new guide uses humour to take the fear out of it all

Scott Jordan Harris
Tuesday 04 August 2015 00:24 BST
Scott Jordan Harris at his home in Rugby
Scott Jordan Harris at his home in Rugby (Andrew Fox)

The majority of people who are not disabled feel awkward around those, like me, who are. Most don't admit it publicly, but statistics show it to be true. Scope, Britain's leading disability charity, conducted a survey into attitudes to disability and the results are astonishing.

Sixty-seven per cent of British people feel so awkward around disabled people they either panic or avoid all contact with us. Forty-eight per cent have never started a conversation with a disabled person. Seventy-six per cent have never invited a disabled person to a social occasion and only 16 per cent have invited one of us into their homes. Saddest of all, only five per cent of people who are not disabled have ever asked out, or been on a date with, someone who is. To put all this in context, disabled people make up 18 per cent of the population. That's just under one in five.

The most important result to come from Scope's survey is "End the Awkward", the campaign it inspired the charity to begin. "Not enough people know a disabled person or know enough about disability," says Mark Atkinson, Scope's interim chief executive. "That's why Scope launched End the Awkward – it aims to tackle the awkwardness that many people feel about disability." Part of the initiative involves teaming up with Channel 4 to release a series of short films called "What Not to Do".

The films feature Alex Brooker, co-host of Channel 4's Friday-night talk show The Last Leg, and they typically show two actors, one disabled and one able-bodied, acting out an awkward social scenario based on the real-life experiences of disabled people. There's a blind man on a faltering first date, a woman with cerebral palsy cringing through a visit to a nail bar, and an amputee on his first day working for a boss who is so desperate not to do anything embarrassing that she embarrasses everyone in the room.

The people around the actors are members of the public who don't know that they are being filmed and don't know the conversations they are overhearing are scripted. Interspersed with the hidden camera footage are shots of Brooker reacting to it. Sometimes he winces, sometimes he laughs, and sometimes he gasps with disbelief. Crucially, though, the films don't aim to demonise able-bodied people or even to make them feel at fault.

"When I was first asked to get involved with End the Awkward, I said I didn't want to do anything that was trying to make able-bodied people feel bad," Brooker tells me. "End the Awkward is the opposite of that. I've seen disability campaigns before and they're always hard-hitting. What I like about End the Awkward is there's humour to it. It isn't about telling people what to do. In a way, it's about making them feel better. It's not wrong to feel a little bit awkward."

Brooker is a clever choice to front the campaign. He's funny, approachable, a bit of a lad and, despite often playing the role of comically confused sidekick on The Last Leg, keenly intelligent. He is also, as he once memorably told then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg on the show, one of Britain's "top disableds".

"I think it's human nature to be curious. And I don't think anyone should feel bad about that," he says. "If you ask most disabled people a question, they're not going to mind."

Alex Brooker, left, films 'What Not to Do' for Channel 4 (Paul Rowland)

Brooker is right. Most of us don't mind answering a question or two about our disabilities, especially if it lets us defuse the awkwardness in a social situation. But awkwardness can come from too many questions as well as too few. Disabled people don't want to be treated as information desks about disability. "Having a disability is just one aspect of you," is how Brooker puts it. "Ultimately, it doesn't actually matter. When you interact with anyone, you're talking to the person, not their disability."

That doesn't mean, though, that able-bodied people need to pretend they don't see our physical challenges. We don't want our disabilities to be ignored, but we don't want to be interrogated about them either. This is a difficult mix and I always feel bad for able-bodied people I see struggling with it. Brooker agrees. "I think it's a hard balance to get," he says, "I really do." After reading the results of Scope's survey, I asked able-bodied friends why they feel awkward around disabled people. The answers were often touching. Sian Meades, a writer, summed up a recurring issue: "I don't want to draw attention to the fact that I'm trying not to draw attention to someone's disability." Most awkward silences come from kind people being afraid of saying the wrong thing and consequently opting to say nothing at all. But if disabled people only ever encounter awkward silences, we never get to talk to anyone."

Other able-bodied people told me they avoid interacting with disabled people because they're worried about being seen as prejudiced if they say something "wrong". But awkwardness and prejudice are drastically different. Someone who is awkward around a disabled person is unlikely to be truly prejudiced. Awkwardness comes from a person wanting to do good and worrying they'll get it wrong. A prejudiced person wouldn't care enough to worry.

"Just because you're awkward around a disabled person doesn't mean it's a hate crime," says Brooker. "The two are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Just because someone doesn't shake my hand properly, it doesn't make them a bad person. Awkwardness comes from people wanting to make someone else feel comfortable."

And awkwardness around disabilities is not limited to the able-bodied. Disabled people can be uneasy around other disabled people, too. I use a wheelchair. Brooker has hand disabilities and had a leg amputated as a baby. My health troubles – I have ME – make it hard for me to leave the house, so I speak to Brooker over the phone, but if we'd met in person he might reasonably have felt awkward about whether he should bend down to talk to me in my chair and I might reasonably have felt awkward about whether to shake his hand.

A welcome side-effect of End the Awkward is that it educates disabled people about how to interact with those who have different disabilities. No one is immune to social anxiety and no-one has experience of talking to people with every possible disability.

"There will always be a degree of awkwardness in a lot of social interactions," says Brooker. "People are awkward in general. If you get on the Tube in London and you don't have to sit near somebody, you won't. That's just because of the way we are as British people: we don't like interacting. No one wants to talk to anyone. Especially in London."

I laugh at this and Brooker realises it is perhaps not completely on-message. "The big message," he says, "is to treat people as people. Deal with who they are. Don't feel bad. It's human nature to be awkward. Just see that you're talking to a person. It doesn't matter what they've got up with them, you're still talking to a person. Don't let awkwardness consume you, because if it goes on too long it just becomes weird. And you don't want to be the weirdo in the office." µ

Channel 4's/Scope's shorts series, "What Not To Do", can be seen on All 4 from today.

What not to do

* Don't be afraid to talk to us. We're just people.

* But don't feel you have to talk to every disabled person you see to prove you're not awkward around us.

* Don't be afraid to ask a question about our disabilities. But don't just talk about our disabilities. There is much more to us.

* Don't assume physical impairment also means mental impairment (or vice versa).

* Don't talk to us loudly and slowly – unless we tell you we have hearing problems.

* Never touch a disabled person's wheelchair or disability aids without permission: they're extensions of our bodies.

* If you feel truly awkward, don't be afraid to admit it. We'll probably laugh with you. The pretence that things aren't awkward only makes them worse.

* If you have a bad experience talking to one disabled person, don't let it put you off talking to others. You wouldn't stop talking to all able-bodied people just because you once had an awkward conversation with one.

* Don't worry too much. However awkward a situation is, we've probably been in worse.

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