Did you know that one in six people in the UK has a disability of some sort? No? Neither did I until quite recently. It’s a shocking statistic, not so much because of the figure of 17%, but because disability is so underreported that when it does make the press people’s life stories become stereotyped and distorted. For example, we’re used to reading stories about soldiers returning from the frontline of duty, minus limbs. We rarely read of people who lost limbs for other reasons. Disability reporting tends to focus on a couple of quite narrow aspects – benefit cheats and the “brave”.
The benefits issue is particularly distressing. Most people with a disability rely on benefits as their sole means of income, meaning they struggle to get by and are forced to live below the poverty line. The few non-disabled who milk the system to claim money they are not entitled to are the ones used by the tabloids to splash “benefit cheats” headlines and used by the government as an excuse to tighten the rules further each time it wants to make savings. The reality is that around 80% of those claiming Disability Living Allowance will be refused on initial application even though they fit all the criteria for a claim.
As for “bravery”, it’s just part of the often patronising, often ignorant language used by the press, as well as the public at large. Just this week, someone described me as “suffering from” epilepsy while someone said my latest seizure must have been “traumatic” – neither of these terms are particularly accurate for the vast majority of people with epilepsy. Language is so often used carelessly to describe the disabled, with little thought given to how the disabled might prefer to be described. I’m not talking just about PC language, although quite the daftest thing I ever heard some years ago was about a memo circulating at a local council instructing workers to use the term “thought shower” instead of “brainstorm” for fear of offending those with epilepsy. The origins of this PC term may well be apocryphal, but it did spread far and wide into common usage. You know what’s really offensive? No one actually asked the 450,000 people in the UK who have epilepsy if they were offended by the term brainstorm. And you know what? We’re not. Probably because we’re too busy fighting for access to decent neurological services.
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day – I invite you to click on the link and read what hundreds of disabled bloggers have to say about the reality of living with a disability. Read, and listen. And remember, you might know one of the one in six, or live next door to one of us.
I’m also really proud that Blogging Against Disablism Day coincides with the publication of my book, Epilepsy: The Essential Guide. If you’re very quick, you can hear me live on BBC Radio Manchester this morning at 11am, talking about epilepsy and living with a disability. It’s live-streamed on the internet.