Disability and Discursive Avoidance: Does He Take Sugar? No I don’t!Monday 7 December 2015
“Does he take sugar?” The question’s become a cliché but the sentiment’s by no means a thing of the past.
Here at Hope I’m an Associate Professor in Dr Claire Penketh’s Department of Disability and Education. In this role I often talk with my students about the fact that social prejudice against disabled people takes many forms, one of which is avoidance. Indeed, Dr Penketh and I recently edited a book on this very subject – Disability, Avoidance and the Academy(2016) – to which our departmental colleagues Dr Owen Barden, Dr Alan Hodkinson, and Ms Laura Waite all contributed chapters. My point here is that this avoidance is often demonstrated in everyday conversations.
Having been registered as blind for more than three decades, I can offer many examples. For instance, in another of my recent books – The Metanarrative of Blindness (2014/2016) – I mention a day on which I accompanied a class on a visit to a resource centre for people who have visual impairments. A colleague and I aimed to encourage a wider understanding of practical matters; to inform our students about various solutions to inaccessibility. However, something more noteworthy was witnessed within minutes of entering the centre. Once the brief introductions were over, having noticed my visual impairment, the person who seemed to be in charge turned to my colleague and asked, “Will you be taking him around?”
Of course I could raise issues about this use of the word taking. While I’m very happy to be guided or assisted, doesn’t being taken reduce me to a kind of object?
I could also take issue with the incorrect assumption that because someone uses a guide dog he or she would necessarily be unable to browse unassisted. To be fair, this is more or less correct in my case, which is why my colleague had already agreed to provide any necessary assistance.
These are important points but what I want to illustrate here is the way in which disabled people are sometimes left out of our own conversations. While my example of being discursively swerved is fairly mundane, it’s noteworthy for a few reasons. The conversation was witnessed by several disability studies students – effectively during a lesson. Also, it was initiated by someone we all expected to be fairly appreciative of disability. After all, such a resource centre is meant to empower people who have visual impairments. Nevertheless, the person in charge subjected me to a form of avoidance – that is, a form of social prejudice. It’s unlikely that this approach would have bolstered the mutual respect I was forging with my students.
A few years have passed since I documented this encounter but I still find myself occasionally having to assert the simple fact that the best person to ask about my intentions is me. More importantly, I’ve been contacted by a number of disabled people who have read my work and shared their irritation if not annoyance about similar social encounters. Far too frequently I’m informed about situations in which support workers are unnecessarily addressed in favour of the people whom they support. Again the situation is worsened when the perpetrators are meant to be appreciative of disability.
As I reflect on this state of affairs I can’t help thinking back to the late 1970s radio programme, Does He Take Sugar?The programme was one of the first to recognise the voice of disability; it talked to rather than about disabled people. When it ended in the late 1990s the implication was that the problem of ignoring the voice of disabled people had become a thing of the past. Nearly two decades on, however, I’d have to say that this is evidently still not the case.