British Radio Show on Disability Issues

"He's deaf, I'm in a wheelchair. Neither of us are stupid."

I overheard these words once in a shop in Nottingham. The speaker was a woman in her early thirties, slim, dark-haired and alert. Her companion was a young man, quite bookish in his round-framed glasses. She sat quietly in her flashy wheelchair, hands relaxed in her lap, looking hard at the shopgirl who had obviously upset the applecart. He stood by, evidently torn between amusement and indignation. I'll call them Sue and Ted.

I had gone into the shop with Beverley to buy some clothes for her. Beverley suffers with multiple sclerosis and was at the time an occasional wheelchair user. We'd woven our way through the racks of clothes to the back of the store, gathering dull stares from the gaggle of shop assistants, standing around bored. We made eye contact with the affronted Sue and her companion, and without a word, left the store.

The four of us discussed the matter over a cup of tea a little later. Each of us had to some extent been the victim of the "does s/he take sugar" syndrome - that condition of able-bodied people that renders them unable to speak directly to people with disability. Of course on this one occasion it had backfired. Apparently Ted was profoundly deaf, and the assistant made the mistake of asking him what size blouse Sue wanted. Unable to read her lips (all shopgirls mumble) he had asked her to repeat her question, at which point Sue had raised the roof, addressing the unfortunate girl with the statement quoted above. Of course, we managed to laugh about it afterward, but the point was made.

Why not talk to people?

"Does he take sugar in his tea?"
Hello; why not ask me?
I might have a disability,
But to answer for myself I still have the ability.
Just 'cos I'm not stood up like you:
Does not mean there is very little for myself that I can do.
Some people think we're sick
And others a little bit thick.

- Michael W. Williams, Connah's Quay *
David Attenborough once described Man as "the compulsive communicator". We all of us have a need to talk with people, and during our course of life, we meet many people, with varying abilities, skills, knowledge and behaviour. We talk to them. So why should people with disability be any different?

For most able-bodied people, eye contact is made with other people standing. Wheelchair users (excuse me for pointing out the obvious) are out of "normal" line of sight and get ignored. This doesn't, however, excuse the same behaviour when all parties are sitting down - all eyes tend to be at the same level.

Some of it is embarrassment. It might be hard to look some people in the eye if we are somehow ashamed that we might give something away. Pity, for example, or shock. We may make assumptions, especially regarding the elderly, that they will have difficulty communicating.

"The most common example is talking to someone in a wheelchair in the third person. I have never heard anyone say 'Does he take sugar?', but two of my favourites are 'He must have come from Stoke Mandeville?' [a hospital specialising in the treatment of spinal injury] and "Is he allowed to drink?" This does not happen too often, and when it does it is only embarrassment and ignorance, but it is very aggravating." - Mike Squire

A friend of mine had an accident which left him facially disfigured. People could not look at him. Beverley is a young woman who is in all other respects, perfectly normal. Yet we still occasionally faced this third-party attempt at communication. I asked one chap in a shop why he hadn't spoken to her directly. "I didn't know where to look", was his reply.

Addressing the Issue

The BBC launched a radio series in about 1973, entitled Does He Take Sugar?, which put disabled peoples' views forward, and highlighted the real need for everyone to accept that all have the same right to dignity, respect and access. Current events were highlighted, people interviewed, stories told and poetry read. Similar series around the world did the same. I recall someone telling me about a radio programme in New Zealand, One in Five, which took a similar stance.

The effect was tremendous. Disabled people felt they had a voice, that people listened. "Able-bodied" folk realised that they had been causing problems for many, and learned to adapt. Things gradually changed.

One piece of simple advice from the series was to affect me greatly: make eye contact. If necessary, get on the same level, and do your best to make both of you comfortable. Smile. Talk naturally - assume intelligence lives behind those eyes. Most people appreciate that you are making an effort, and will respond positively.

Many people will happily tell you things if you ask them respectfully, but don't focus entirely on their disability - Beverley used to say "I am not my disability". They want to talk about football, politics, all the things you want to talk about.

Taking Beverley round Nottingham was always an eye-opener. Many people would go out of their way to help, and would address her directly. Many were condescending, some still asked me questions when they should have been asking her.

We all need the same services, the same products as everyone else. No-one likes to be ignored, so treat everyone as human beings. Oh, and for goodness' sake, ask them if they take sugar.


BlueDragon points out "it's not just people with disabilities. It happens to children and husbands all the time. My mum asks me if [my husband] would like a cup of tea."

Siobhan says this applies "to all kinds of disabilities - mental as well as physical".

kthejoker comments: "My mom's had polio since she was very young. Only children seem to be able to look her in the eye."

DejaMorgana says "it seems to be especially true regarding blind people, at least in my experience. People think blindness makes a person completely incapable of answering a question."

themanwho says "re Does He Take Sugar?: my brother has down's syndrome. I can cope with people with physical disabilities, but still find myself unable to handle even other people with down's syndrome in a reasonable way :("

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northeast/sites/poetry/pages/michael_williams.shtml
http://www.jtsma.org.uk/mike/btm.html

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