Expert Comment: Twenty years since the Disability Discrimination ActTuesday 3 November 2015
Dr David Bolt, Associate Professor in the Department of Disability and Education, discusses 20 years since the Disability Discrimination Act.
In the United Kingdom we can now celebrate twenty years of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). That is to say, for twenty years prejudicial actions that are based on disability have been deemed officially wrong.
This milestone is a sign of social progress, of course, but without a true appreciation of disabled people the act takes on a rather rhetorical form. Without this appreciation attitudinal barriers remain a problem.
The thing is that attitudes, unlike actions, are often classed as harmless. But in fact attitudes are the basis of the most harmful actions. This means that bad attitudes towards disability must be changed if inclusive actions are ever to become truly meaningful.
I’ve been registered as blind for more than thirty years and have used a Guide Dog for most of this time. I’m aware that there are laws against actions such as restaurants refusing to serve me because of my dog. However, this hasn’t put an end to me being made to feel unwelcome in restaurants run by people who have bad attitudes towards disability. The assumption might be that policies and laws are accompanied or else rapidly followed by social change, but from experience I know this isn’t always the case. I also know that bad attitudes towards disability can be an issue when accessing education, leisure, accommodation, employment, and (among other things) public transport.
In a book that Owen Barden, Marie Caslin, Alan Hodkinson, Claire Penketh and I published last year, I remember my partner telling me about something she witnessed on a bus journey. On the upside, the bus was physically accessible, so it posed no unnecessary difficulty for a couple who got on, even though the woman was of short stature. On the downside, however, the bus driver automatically addressed the man and openly joked that he might only need to pay for one and a half adults, rather than two. This made the disabled woman seem childlike, from which it would follow that the non-disabled man was deeply wrong in his choice of partner. Therefore, in this example the attitudes and actions didn’t match, for the bus driver’s so-called joke had disturbing implications that clashed with the bus company’s policy of accessibility.
Interestingly, the opposite is sometimes true. At the end of one of the conferences that I have arranged with some of my colleagues in the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies, my partner and I dashed off to our favourite restaurant for a celebratory meal. Within a few minutes of sitting down, I was contacted by one and then another colleague. They were thinking of joining us, so, given that we hadn’t booked anything, I checked with the restaurant that space could be made for a few guests around our table. I mentioned we’d need a little extra room because some of us used wheelchairs and others used guide dogs. The restaurant owners didn’t hesitate to oblige, even though I wasn’t sure exactly how many people would be joining us.
This is only part of the story. One of my colleagues was using a wheelchair and she arrived at the table without any problems. However, the same couldn’t be said about another colleague who was using a power chair. The restaurant has an awkward porch that made it difficult for him to enter. Although my standard response to such situations is to leave and not return, in this instance, because some of us were already eating, I was less hasty. It was then that the importance of attitudes towards disability became clear. The physical environment wasn’t great, but the attitude of the restaurant owners was good. More than being provided with a ramp, my colleague was welcomed and joined the rest of us after a few minutes. I realise a positive attitude towards disability isn’t always enough, but in this instance it allowed us to enjoy our celebration.
What these experiences illustrate is that bad attitudes towards disability must be challenged and changed before positive actions can become truly meaningful. An accessible bus on the streets of twenty-first-century Britain demonstrates positive policies and laws, which is obviously good. However, the reality remains concerning when a bus driver draws on bad attitudes towards disability to make a cheap joke. The thing is that, though perhaps no longer shut out physically, in this kind of society disabled people continue to be excluded in other ways. It is only via appreciation that we can break down these attitudinal barriers and thus truly celebrate the anniversary of the DDA.