Over the last decade progress on gender and sexual orientation in the Western world has been palpable, yet not on disability. In Ireland, gay marriage has been sanctioned by a popular vote, something unimaginable even ten years prior. In the UK, gender pay gap reporting is now mandatory for all large companies. Yet when it comes to disability, we have not seen comparable progress. Why?
Who you know matters
One of the reasons lies in what academics refer to as “inter-group contact theory”. In other words, meeting people outside one’s usual circle of friends and associates. One of the main reasons for gender being taken ever more seriously in Western corporations is the undeniable fact that women are half the population and the most vocal “minority”. Female pressure (and male pressure) from customers, shareholders, politicians and employees has moved this up the agenda.
One of the main reasons for LGBTQ+ issues being taken ever more seriously is the fact that most straight people now know someone who is LGBTQ+. It could be a family member, colleague or friend. This decreases the fear of difference, because it becomes more known, more real, even more friendly. In Ireland, it was young LGBTQ+ people persuading their (straight) grandparents to advocate for equality online that was a key factor in the successful gay marriage campaign.
Disability inclusion requires more contact between disabled and non-disabled people. One of the best examples of this happening en masse is the Paralympic Games. In Beijing, prior to 2008, disabled people were virtually invisible. As a direct consequence of the Games coming to town, the city bulldozed thousands of drop curbs to make sidewalks easier to navigate and made a large part of the city’s transit system accessible. This contributed to more interaction between disabled and non-disabled residents.
This increased familiarity with “minorities” can decrease the “othering” they experience. But while many straight people now know LGBTQ+ people and increasing numbers of men have female professional equals at work, the same cannot be said for disabled people.
Take Brooke Ellison, for example. She is the first quadriplegic person to graduate from Harvard and now a leading professor in her field. While a student, she recalls a class when the women in the class, fed up with male dominated conversation, self-organized. They corresponded by email and then at the start of the class took over the stage to change the course of the conversation. Except that Brooke was not included on the emails and could not have mounted the steps to the stage in any case. Did the female classmates not see one of their own?
Familiarity is one of the best ways to deal with "othering". Given that over 80 million Americans have a disability there is a large group of people for the remaining 247 million to get to know. Someone in the family has a mental health condition, there will be a colleague with a hidden disability, there is a need for all of us to become allies.
In terms of physical barriers, the majority of offices and workplaces are still not accessible. Public transport is another key barrier, and even new technology is not inclusive. Cities like Beijing, London and now Tokyo (hosting the Paralympic Games in summer 2020) have made great strides in this area but many more cities could follow suit. In terms of non-physical barriers, there is still much stigma around mental health, lack of knowledge of even basic terminology or how to flex work environments to accommodate different needs. Organisations like the City Mental Health Alliance in London are raising this up the agenda and global organisations such as KPMG and EY have publicly supported partners that have disclosed mental health conditions, acting as role models for others in their firms.
Often accessibility is seen as a cost, when it can often be more of an investment. At the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Organising Committee invested in a recruitment center that appeared at first more expensive than an alternative. The center had step-free access, automatic doors and was equipped with inclusive technology. This made it work inclusively for not only disabled people but also for parents with kids and strollers and even the center manager who broke their leg in a skiing accident. The subsequent lack of adaptations required saved money in the medium to long term.
There is a social positivity around LGBTQ+ that does not exist to the same degree with disability. There are probably far more disabled people than LGBTQ+ people however there is an (unfair) implicit association between disability and negative factors such as disease. This makes disability undesirable, to be feared, to be othered.
One of the contributing factors to this is representation of disabled people in the mainstream media. They are largely absent or portrayed negatively. Some media organisations are now starting to address this. For example, “Lights, Camera, Access!” is a California based initiative of the Loreen Arbus Foundation to tackle lack of representation in Hollywood. The UK broadcaster Channel 4 offered free airtime to advertisers that featured positive portrayals of disability in their output, creating affirmative role models in the public eye.
If non-disabled people remain ignorant of disability, we will as a society fail to include disabled people. People have an increasingly high cognitive load and the space for empathy and seeing things from other perspectives seems to be on the decline. However, there is a need to urgently rethink disability. Most of us either are, or will eventually become, disabled. So, it would seem a sensible, inclusive, future-proofing step to get with the program sooner rather than later.