Erm This Is Awkward

Matthew Edmonds suggests that we don't need pat responses to break down barriers between disabled and non-disabled people.

Author: Matthew Edmonds

Why Scope's new campaign might not be the right approach.

Two weeks ago Scope launched their End The Awkward campaign. A laudable mixture of online and TV ads aimed at ending the 'awkwardness around disability'. The ads see various confused chaps and chapesses feeling very awkward around a variety of disabled people in a variety of workplace situations. Whether to shake a right hand that isn't there or plump for the left, whether to bend down to talk to a wheelchair user or remain upright, whether to continue trying to flirt with a deaf woman or skulk off into the distance.

The adverts are sweet and funny and feature the talented comedian and journalist Alex Brooker as the ghost of an un-awkward future, super-imposed on each situation to link the audience into the 'right' response (shake the left, remain upright, go for the kill).

Brooker has previous as one of the leading men on Channel Four's chat show The Last Leg, originally a tie-in with the channel's Paralympic coverage. Here he helped helm the Is It OK twitter campaign, which asked viewers to tweet in their own awkward thoughts and instincts on how to approach disabled people for him to clarify, deconstruct and occasionally mercilessly take the piss out of.

The grown-up tone and wit of the Is It OK campaign made it feel revolutionary. Here was an inclusive space for discussion of genuine issues of disabled identity on a mainstream broadcaster that neither sneered at nor pandered to those who felt confused. The Scope campaign feels rather less auspicious.

That's not to say there isn't good work. Scope should be congratulated for drawing attention to the fact that 4 in 10 people have been denied a job because of an employers attitude to disability, and to the more general point that many people who don't identify with a disability DO feel awkward about interacting with those who do. I've spent the last few years discussing the gap between the disability community's increasing self-awareness and the lack of awareness of those on the outside. It's more than philosophical. A 2006 Canadian project called Gateways showed that disabled women were receiving sub-average cancer screening because health care providers were sometimes too afraid to ask intimate questions less they offend, or touch their bodies less they cause pain. The sad fact was that a fear of awkwardness around disability was probably costing lives.

So what's awkward about Scope's campaign? 

Its intentions are well and good. Scope are an incredible organisation at the forefront of disability rights and inclusion. Still there's a snag about the hand-me-down, one-size-fits-all solutions that their videos offer up. They're wrong. Ask my friend David. Try and shake his left hand, which is much like yours or mine, rather than his right, which isn't, and he'll be somewhat peeved. Not that he'd say anything, he's not like that. And you weren't to know, but the fact is David`s preference isn't Scope's official response, because people's preferences are't uniform.

This may seem petty, to point out a single instance where Scope's clearly thought-through responses to specific issues of interaction fall down, but it`s the nub of the matter. Awkwardness doesn`t stem from not knowing what to do in a set situation, but rather from not knowing the person you`re interacting with. I know David. David knows me. I shook his left hand the first few times we met. He could tell me it`s not his preference now. It`s not awkward, we're mates.

So what about those occasions when we don`t know someone? A first meeting or job interview? What are the set rules and boundaries then?

Perhaps we have to ask ourselves why we are asking these questions in the first place? What's wrong with the norms of good behaviour when meeting anyone else for the first time? How about politeness? Openness? The humility to see a confusion over etiquette as an easy opportunity to learn, rather than the occasion of a mortifying transgression.

The awkward thing is not that we lack set solutions for potentially awkward situations. The awkward thing is that disabled people are so excluded from society that we see our interactions with them as instinctively other. Always potentially awkward. That a lack of shared experience has led those of us who don't identify as disabled to see the different bodies of those who do as foreign, as taboo, as awkward in themselves, with confusion over simple etiquette taking on a much graver meaning than say confusion over an unfamiliar name. Of course, names and bodies are different. They shape different parts of our identity. Yet our increasing ease with the former shows how much more familiar we are with cultural diversity than the diversity of bodies and genes.

A startling 2010 survey, carried out by Scope, found that an astonishing nine out of ten British people has never invited a disabled person into their home. That's 90 % of the British population who have never had a cup of tea with someone who identifies as disabled. The same report found that just two out of ten British people who identify with the disability community have friends who don't. We're not meeting each other. We're not getting the chance to learn about disabled identities from disabled people. We're relying on ad campaigns.

Here's a radical solution to this awkward fact. Let's lobby for total access on the transport system, in museums, schools, housing and public spaces, so that disabled people start to become visible, disrupting the falsely homogenous face of public life. More than just ramps and easy-ready brochures, it's a question of advancing an attitude to difference that recognises it's excluded at every turn, that understands inclusive action as a small step on the long journey towards normalising diversity and creating social spaces that are open to all.

It's not a sexy answer. It's not as immediate or as viral as offering simple solutions from on high.

But it is the awkward truth.

Matt Edmonds is the author of A Theological Diagnosis: A New Direction on Genetic Therapy, Disability and The Ethics Of Healing and founder of The Disability Allies

Find him on twitter here: @DisabilityAlly

The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Erm This Is Awkward © Matthew Edmonds 2014.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 26.06.14

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