A high profile person recently lamented to me how their life was transformed and they understood ‘everything’ after spending an hour in a wheelchair.
The real question here is, why the need to try to understand what it's like to be disabled? We don't paint our faces brown to try to understand what it's like to be Māori. Or, try to simulate monthly period expereinces for men to understand what it’s like to be a woman. Shudder at the thought! We just accept and respect that some experiences of being a man/woman or Māori/Pākehā are different.
It’s often said that the biggest barrier to disabled people’s participation in society is attitudes. I reckon it’s more a blatant lack of respect. Respect for us as people. Respect for our dignity, which is no less than that owed to a non-disabled person.
Evidence of this lack of respect is rife. It’s common for people in wheelchairs to be asked by strangers if they can have sex. Since when is it respectable to ask a stranger about their sex life?!
Disrespect for disabled people can also be seen in government circles. The number of times I’ve seen government people say that disabled people have high expectations and should remember the good things we have, verges on intimidation and bullying. The implication being that disabled New Zealanders should have lower expectations than non-disabled New Zealanders. Prominent lawyer and blogger Andrew Geddis noted that the government wouldn’t treat the fishing sector the way it treats the disability sector. Can we have more respect, please.
Awareness training that tries to provide non-disabled people with a minute opportunity to experience disability is, unsurprisingly, highly controversial. While it may seem effective, other methods of raising disability consciousness and respect for disabled people need to take centre stage. The recent Campbell Live feature of parking wheelchairs in regular car parks is a creative example.
Don’t focus on trying to understand what it’s like to be disabled. Put bluntly, an hour in a wheelchair isn’t gonna come close. Instead, show respect to disabled people.
We are people after all.
Victoria is a prominent Deaf policy analyst. This post is not on behalf of any organisation.