Attitudes and assumptions about disability

There are a lot of negative assumptions in our society which are damanging to disabled people. Obviously these more negative assumptions affect people’s attitudes towards disabled people. But it has wider impacts on our lives; if you underestimate how many disabled people there are, you might not see the point in making your business accessible, if you see us as less productive, then you likely assume we can’t go to university, or work, or contribute to society meaningfully.

Obviously, attitudes and assumptions come from somewhere, and that somewhere is almost always society. Living in society means we develop unconscious bias’s that help our brain make quick assessments of people and situations. We would highly recommend watching this short video about unconscious bias before you scroll down.

The most important thing here is that this bias is unconscious and automatic and has been shaped by your life and world and society. You are not at fault.

However, you can spend some time thinking about what your unconscious bias’s are, reflecting on them and asking yourself if you consciously agree with the bias.

This post is not to blame or shame anyway, it’s to help you think through some assumptions that wider society can have around disability.

Firstly, let’s look a little at types of assumptions:

  • Explicit assumptions are those that have been expressed and shared. For example, if your organisation has a policy of using paid employees to check the work of volunteers, this is based on an expressed assumption that volunteers are less skilled and experienced than paid employees.
  • Implicit or internalised assumptions are those that haven’t been articulated, that are internalised. We make implicit assumptions based on our personal experience and position, often without even realising that that’s what we’re doing. For example, if your organisation works with a mixture of paid employees and volunteers, there could be an implicit assumption for many that the paid employees are the real experts and therefore somehow ‘better’ at their role. Implicit assumptions are generally harder to identify and require some honest self-awareness (Open Learn Create).

We’ve got a variety of common misconceptions about disability below. Please look and ask yourself if you think you might have internalised some of them. If so, try and have a think about it. We all live in this society and society shapes our assumptions so we’re not asking you to beat yourselves up about them, but asking you to identify your assumptions and reflect on them.

A few key assumptions and attitudes are:

  • That we are constantly suffering
  • That we don’t have, and never have had, any real or significant experiences in the way that non-disabled people do
  • That our disability is contagious
  • That nothing can be gained from the experience of being disabled
  • That we are naive and lead sheltered lives
  • That we are always in a child like state and need others to decide what’s best for us
75% of people think of disabled people in general as needing to be carer for

Some disabled people have carers or Personal Assistants, some don’t. Some disabled people have informal support from friends and family. In fact, no one can get through life without support from someone else, whether they’re disabled or not. Think about how your parents supported you. Or maybe your partner does most of the cooking. You might give someone a hand putting up shelves. We all give support and we all recieve support. We are interdependent and that’s the case whether we’re thinking about disability or not.

Importantly, don’t assume that if we require a carer or other kind of support, we are helpless and unable to do anything at all, we have nothing to give and lead meaningless, empty lives. Needing care isn’t an assessment on our quality of life.

Work, education and contributing to society

32% think disabled people are not as productive as non-disabled people

Unhelpful assumptions about disabled people’s ability to learn, work and engage in our communities mean disabled people are less likely to be employed, even when we would be an excellent candidate for the job.

Assumptions around our ability to contribute to society include:

  • That we can’t be educated like non disabled children and our expectations should be lower.
  • That if we work, it’s a nice gesture from the employer, not that we have anything valuable to add.
  • That we can’t actually do anything.
  • That we ‘sit around’ all day ‘doing nothing’.
  • That if we don’t work, we should spend our days in a centre with other disabled people.
  • That we should put up with any inconvenience, discomfort or indignity in order to participate in ‘normal’ activities and events.

If you think about this, consciously, it’s easier to realise that someone’s ability to walk doesn’t mean they can’t teach for example.

Assumptions about how it feels to be disabled

  • That we feel ugly, inadequate and ashamed of our disability and despise any aids such as wheelchairs
  • That our lives are barely worth living
  • That we want to be ‘normal’, ‘whole’ or ‘fixed’
  • That we can’t accept our condition, so if we appear to be leading a full and contented life, or are simply cheerful, we are ‘putting on a brave face’
  • That we are jealous of nondisabled people
  • That our condition is a punishment
  • That any emotion or distress we show can only be due to our disability and not to the same things that hurt and upset others
  • That our disability has made us bitter and neurotic
  • That we never give up hope of a cure

“Our anger is not about having ‘a chip on our shoulder’, our grief is not a ‘failure to come to terms with disability’. Our dissatisfaction with our lives is not a personality defect but a sane response to the oppression which we experience.”

Jenny Morris, Pride Against Prejudice

Attitudes from some businesses

a glass jar on it's side with pennies spilling out
  • Disability access is a luxury that we can’t afford to accomodate
  • We don’t have disabled customers so it’s not really an issue
  • We don’t work on disability
  • We don’t have the skills to work with disabled people
  • Disability access is a customer service issue (it’s actually a legal issue)

In fact, it’s thought that businesses lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people. 75% of disabled people and their families have walked away from a UK business because of poor accessibility or customer service (Purple Pound).

Sex and relationships

  • That we are non sexual or are sexually inadequate
  • That we can’t become parents, and if we do, we are unfit to be parents
  • That any nondisabled person who marries us must have suspicious motives and not have married us for love.
  • That a nondisabled person is making a sacrifice by being with us, and doing us a favour
  • That if our relationship fail, it is because of our disability and the burden this puts on our partner
  • That we haven’t got a right to a nondisabled partner, and that if they happen to be very obviously attractive, it’s even more of a ‘waste’

There’s an article from Cosmopolitan which asked Can Disabled People Have Sex? It actually only talks about wheelchair users but it’s a good starting point for anyone wanting to think about sex and disability.

Enhance the UK are also doing a lot of work around sex and disability and there are some great disabled people out there, including the gorgeous and talented Kelly Gordon. Kelly uses a wheelchair and works for a sex toy company.

Thanks to Jenny Morris for her long list of attitudes and assumptions, found in Pride Against Prejudice which inspired our list.

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