A disability is defined as any physical or mental condition that has a ‘substantial’ or ‘long-term’ negative effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal daily activities. This means the exact nature of disability isn’t at all uniform and can range from visible disabilities like paraplegia and cerebral palsy, to invisible ones such as mental health conditions and hearing and vision impairments. And of course, many disabilities don't fit neatly into either category. This diversity emphasises that disability is not uncommon; 1 in 6 of us will be affected by some form during our lifetimes.
Despite this, stigma around disability is still incredibly pervasive in societies around the world. The effect of this stigma on the lives of disabled people can be profound, with many facing a lack of understanding of their needs, as well as barriers when trying to access employment, education and other services. It's clear that living with a disability often means being denied opportunities. For instance, research by disability charity Scope has revealed that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.
Some of the most damaging stigma comes from the attitudes of wider society towards those with disabilities. In the UK, negative attitudes towards people with disabilities are all too common, with two thirds of British adults admitting to being uncomfortable when talking to disabled people, often because they feel awkward and worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. This can have a knock-on effect, where those with disabilities end up ignored and left out during social activities. This is obviously a horrible way for anyone to feel!
It’s worth noting that much of this behaviour isn’t deliberately exclusionary or unkind, but instead stems from the fact that many people simply don’t know enough about living with a disability. Indeed, the most common negative behaviour that people with disabilities report encountering is a lack of understanding about their needs! By raising awareness of these needs and debunking the misconceptions, we can start to counter the stigma that many people with disabilities have to face on a daily basis. And this work has is already well under way; campaigns like Scope’s ‘End the Awkward’ initiative are doing great work to combat some of these attitudes and behaviours.
At UKS Mobility, we wanted to do our own bit to raise awareness of these issues. We’ve got in touch with 16 bloggers who write about disability (whether from their own lived experiences, or from experience as a carer), and asked them to share their stories and insights on the common misconceptions about living with a disability. Here’s what they had to say...
Cory Lee Curb Free With Cory Lee
- "I think that the biggest misconception, especially in my line of work in the travel industry, is that people with disabilities don’t want to travel. There’s the belief that wheelchair users just stay at home and don’t have the money to travel, but that’s far from the truth. We lead extraordinary lives and want to travel, just like anyone else. We just need destinations to be a bit more accommodating to make that a reality. When destinations do focus on accessibility, we’ll be thrilled to visit and spend our money there."
Hayley GoleniowskaDowns Side Up
- When we brought Natty home from hospital at 3 weeks old, many acquaintances didn't know what to say. The very best friends were those who said congratulations, whilst acknowledging our worries, and brought the usual baby gifts, asked about her name and weight and what she looked like.Those who expressed sorrow or worse still, said nothing at all, began to avoid us and eventually disappeared. I often describe Natty's arrival as having 'sorted the wheat from the chaff amongst friends.'While there are medical conditions associated with Down's Syndrome, no individual will have them all. These include heart and intestinal problems, visual and hearing loss, thyroid function fluctuations, leukaemia and Alzheimer's.Down's Syndrome is very rarely a complex or severe disability. It is more commonly described by experts today as a 'mild to moderate developmental delay'.
- The biggest misconception is that life must be horrible. Thanks to the government and media coverage, things can appear bleak. When in fact life can be fantastic with a disability. For me it all hinges on having the right care and technology support, as well as no societal barriers. My Personal Assistants, electric wheelchair, adapted car all enable me to be independent. Barriers wise. When a pub has steps I'm disabled. When it's wheelchair accessible I'm Martyn :-)This is the case across housing, transport, work, leisure and sexual relationships. When society understands that disabled people are simply people facing barriers, it's all very simple and cool. Let's reduce the negativity, embrace difference, and look for solutions.
- With disability, they said that my world would get smaller. They were wrong. The world looks so much bigger from the seat of my wheelchair! And, with accessibility improving every day, the world is mine to discover. The people around us might falsely assume that our physical challenges will limit our movement, but we adapt. We adapt in both mind and body, training ourselves to use every resource available to reclaim what was lost. We amaze and inspire by our desire to live. And that is the ultimate misconception - that people with disabilities are quitters, that we'll resign ourselves to defeat and that we'll lose the ability (and desire) to thrive.
- The most common misconception about life with a disability- specifically the most common misconception about disabled people- is that unless we can speak, we are stupid. The truth is that nonverbal people understand everything verbal people say, and are just as intelligent as, if not more intelligent than, verbal people.
Kirsty RussellMy Home Truths
- For me, as a carer to 2 children with disability plus my mother (who's physically impaired), the most common misconception is that most people write off what disabled people can do. They seem to just see the challenges and ignore the person themself and their other inherent strengths. Most people see disability as a limitation and an obstacle to living a full life. However, disability does not stop anyone from doing what they really want to do. There are always ways around each challenge and it's important that more people see what people with a disability can do rather than concentrate on what they can't.As an example, my son has autism, anxiety and is vision impaired, a combination which means we have to seek many accommodations and access ongoing therapies for him. However, despite these challenges, he was awarded a place in a gifted and talented program at his local mainstream high school, a place he secured on his own merit. With reasonable adjustments (such as access to technology and extra time to process information) he has had a very successful first year in high school. He is a smart boy and it's been wonderful to watch the high school understand and acknowledge his strengths, rather than focus on his challenges.That's the most common misconception that I find with disability - the fact that people normally focus on the challenges and seem to be surprised when they see the real strengths that lie beneath.
Rob ObeyThe Bimblers
- There are many misconceptions about living with a disability, these five in particular frustrate me:#1 - People with a Disability use a WheelchairNo they don't. In fact, only a tiny proportion of people with disabilities use a wheelchair. Disability comes in so many guises and as we know, not all of them are visible. And, as a sub misconception of this point. Not all wheelchair users are unable to walk. There are hundreds of thousands of part-time chair users and just because they can walk a short distance doesn't mean they're a fraud!#2 - People with a Disability Have No AmbitionYes they do. First and foremost, people with disabilities are human. They want, need and desire all the same things as people without a disability. They want to feel safe, to be loved, to have friends, to be heard and to succeed at whatever path they choose to follow. Just because society puts barriers in the way doesn't mean they lack ambition.#3 - People with a Disability Have No EmotionsFor some reason, society (not all) feels it acceptable to mock, blame and alienate people with disabilities. Worse still, they feel they can behave like this and no one gets hurt. People with disabilities have all the same emotions as everyone else. It hurts when they are labelled scroungers, it's devastating to be called useless, even a wayward stare from a stranger can ruin their day.#4 - People with a Disability are PoorYes, some are, but so are millions of able bodied people. Why does this matter? It matters because when there is a misconception that people have no money to spend, industries don't bother creating products and services to meet the demand. Which in turn, alienates people from buying products and using services which serves to feed the misconception.#5 - People with Disabilities Can't TravelAs a disabled travel blogger, it would be wrong if I didn't bring up this misconception. Some of the most intrepid explorers I have met had a disability of some kind, it didn't stop them, if anything, it spurred them on. Not all travel requires climbing mountains and people with disabilities can and do enjoy all the same travel experiences as non disabled people. When the travel industry realises this, they will open up a whole new world for people with disabilities and a valuable revenue stream for themselves.
Katherine BoutonAuthor of Shouting Won't Help: Why I -- and 50 Million Other Americans -- Can't Hear You
Because hearing loss is an invisible disability with no markers like a cane or a wheelchair, it's very hard for people to comprehend. Even when you tell them you have hearing loss and ask them to speak slower, or to look at you when they speak (so you can read their lips), they often forget within about five minutes that you can't hear them.
The most common misconception is that a sign language interpreter is the best accommodation for hearing loss. In the U.S. at least, this assumption is hugely off base. Only between 2 to 4 percent of those with hearing loss understand ASL (I assume the same is true in the UK for BSL). Nevertheless a sign language interpreter is often automatically provided, when what most of us need are either captions or assistive listening devices. Hearing loops, common in the UK, are little used in the US.
Another misconception, related to the ASL confusion, is that one solution works for all. Looping is great but people with profound hearing loss that can't be corrected can't use it, nor can the Culturally Deaf, nor can people who do not have telecoils in their hearing aids. Captions come closest to a universal accommodation but that requires a skillful captioner and a speaker who speaks slowly and clearly.
Quite a few people I know have run into a different, and amusing, misconception. They have checked off "hearing loss" as a disability needing accommodation at an airport (meaning signs, etc) and have found that someone has instead sent a wheelchair to meet them at the gate.
The biggest misconception is that if you have hearing aids or a cochlear implant, your hearing has been restored. For people with severe loss this is, alas, simply not true. Hearing aids and c.i.'s can only do so much, and after that we need captions, looping, and other kinds of accommodations.
Finally, I think very few people realise how widespread hearing loss is. More than 2/3rds of those over 70 have hearing loss, but since most won't admit it, it's not well recognised. One-fifth of all Americans have some degree of hearing loss. Worldwide, six to eight percent of all people have disabling hearing loss, according to a recent review article in the Lancet, which is an astonishingly high number.
Chris LenartDisability Awareness
- I think the biggest misconception is that since you are nonverbal, then you must be "retarded". That is totally false. I am nonverbal but I do have my master in Software Engineering. I worked for fourteen years as a programmer analyst. So am I retarded? I say no. The next biggest misconception is people with disabilities don't want to be in a relationship or want to be romantic. That is so false that it is crazy. I know many people who have disabilities and desire to be in a relationship. I am in this group of people.
- Something I'm passionate about is that we are often underserved in sexual and reproductive health education. There are assumptions about our abilities to engage in sexual relationships, to go through pregnancy and give birth, and our need for intimate care services regardless of if someone is sexual or not. Menstrual health as a generally taboo subject has even more limitations when it comes to the specific needs, physically and educationally, of disabled people who menstruate. Additionally, in the Intellectual Disability/Developmental Disability community, education on these issues are done with euphemisms to deleterious effects. Because non-explicit and euphemistic educational approaches are used, comprehension of the implications of even one's own abuse, rape, and assault is denied. I have met people who because of a tendency towards euphemism and vagueness in these issues didn't know what happened to them counted as rape, and their rapists and abusers went unpunished.
ElinMy Blurred World
- There are many misconceptions surrounding the subject of living with a disability, more so than we realise. One of the main ones being that disabled people can't be normal, whatever normal may be. People often find the need to speak to us disabled people in a different manner to how they'd speak to anyone else as if we don't understand what they're saying when in reality we do. Disabled people might need a little extra support to complete certain tasks, travel places etc but we are no different to any other member of the public, there is no need to treat us as if we are.
HollyLife of a Blind Girl
There are many misconceptions surrounding disability including that disabled people aren't independent or rely on others. One of the most common misconceptions about disability is that disabled people cannot live life to the fullest. This is of course not true at all. We may make adaptations, have to plan in advance and may not be able to do some things but this does not mean that we are incapable. We can live our lives just like non-disabled people Our disability does not define us and we do not live our lives around our disability.
Kirsten SchultzNot Standing Still's Disease
- The general disbelief of our illnesses or disabilities apparently knows no bounds. Having multiple invisible illnesses, I struggle with people not believing I'm sick. I get sneered at from older people, stared at by those closer to my age (or younger), and occasionally get comments about using my handicapped placard. People often assume that my weight is why I'm disabled, as opposed to realising I'm heavier due to my health issues and their treatments. I also get comments often about how I'm far too young to be sick as if disability only affects the elderly. Or, likewise, I'll be told how I'm so pretty for someone who is ill.Pretty people are disabled. Young people are disabled. Not all disabilities are visible. Most importantly, though, disabilities are a normal part of life. The more abled people realise this, the less stigma we'll all experience.
- In my opinion the biggest misconception about disability is actually the idea normal exists. Too often we hinder ourselves worrying about blending in and being "normal" when the reality is we all (everyone including able-bodies) have differences. Some might be physical or another type of disability. Others might deal with family life or the environment we will live. No matter the difference we should look to find a positive from it and learn to celebrate that because the bottom line is normal is a myth.
Cara LiebowitzThat Crazy Crippled Chick
- People tend to think in one of two extremes: that life with a disability is either a never-ending tragedy, day after day, or, conversely, that it's wonderful and happy and filled with rainbows and unicorns.
- The truth is, life with a disability is just that - life.
- I have good days and bad days just like everyone else. Sometimes those good times and bad times are related to my disabilities. Sometimes they're not. I can have a good time out with friends, or eat a really good meal, or anything else that makes me happy, just like everyone else. I can also have a shitty day at work, or get elbowed in the face on public transportation (admittedly, as a wheelchair user, that probably happens to me more often than other people), or have my washing machine break down, just like everyone else. I'm not this larger than life figure of tragedy or inspiration. I'm simply human, with all the ups and downs that entails.
Nicola GoldingView From a Walking Frame
The main misconceptions I face around my disability are that people see my walking frame or wheelchair and assume I’m not capable of things. They’ll tell me that somewhere is too far for me to walk, or that I can’t go somewhere because it has stairs, despite not knowing me well enough to know what my physical limitations are.
People always seem surprised when they find out my boyfriend is my boyfriend because they always assume he’s my brother. If someone hasn’t met then the first question I’m often asked about him is ‘is he disabled too?’ which always feels like people assume I couldn’t have an able-bodied partner.
GlenWell Eye Never
A common assumption I’ve encountered is that having a disability must mean I can’t do a lot, because I’m not capable or confident enough. And therefore, because I must lead such a quiet, boring life, I can’t be very interesting to talk to or interact with. Which in turn can mean I don’t get invited to activities and events that I could otherwise have enjoyed and contributed to.
So it then takes people by surprise when they learn how much I do actually get out and about, on my own or with others, visiting lots of different places and having fun at lots of social events. Especially since I moved to London last year, which has dramatically opened up such opportunities. And there can even be shock when people discover I have a sense of humour, particularly when I make jokes about my own disability, as if I’m supposed to hate myself all the time.
It’s a real eye opener to them, which is ironic given that I’m visually impaired myself. But everything else about me is fine, it’s only my eyesight that’s dodgy - and perhaps my jokes too, some would argue! I have great friends, I love having a good laugh, I have a degree, I have a job, I travel independently and I’ve had lots of amazing experiences.
So there still needs to be education and awareness that disabled people are people first and foremost, and that disability doesn’t mean lack of ability. We can still lead happy and fulfilling lives, and be social and independent, just like everybody else. It’s just that we have to adapt and do things in slightly different ways sometimes, that’s all. So I do wish more people would put their assumptions aside and give disabled people a fair and equal chance. Things are gradually moving in the right direction, there is more awareness out there these days. But there is still a lot of work to be done too.
Laura RobbLaura C. Robb
- The misconceptions I see the most are:
- First, my physical disability means I can't speak for myself. There's an assumption that a wheelchair equals physical and mental limits. People in public try to talk to whoever I'm with, but I often open my mouth and surprise the stranger.Second, I need prayer for healing from my disability. This is how I was born and all I've known. Disability isn't my focus. Living life well is, just like everyone else.Third, marriage as a person with a disability is an impossible dream. Plenty are married and their relationships are beautiful examples of loving one another. I have hope for this "normal" dream... because I'm "normal" too.
If you'd like to share your experiences around this topic, please email Natalie here.