Why without Visibility there will never be Real Awareness, Genuine Understanding and Actual Inclusion

When was the last time you met someone, and you really weren’t sure what to say or do? How did it make you feel? Confused? A bit fearful that you might say the wrong thing? Why did this happen? Was it because you didn’t really understand how to interact with this person? Was it because you had never met anyone like them before?

When Do We Start To Use Stereotypes?

We always say that small children have no inherent biases or stereotypes, which is why they will talk to anyone and ask those embarrassing questions that make parents cringe. But over time biases both positive and negative develop as the influence of those around them shapes their attitudes and opinions. Unfortunately, it can happen very young. I have personal experience with my own daughter aged 4 of how quickly things can change from a friendship to overt exclusion in the playground. At that age it was clearly driven by the parents’ views. It’s perhaps even worse when so called friends refuse to call out their own children for bullying, perhaps in part because they know they shaped their child’s views. Every parent of a child with additional needs will have a story of lost friendships.

The Social Model of Disability

This is essentially what the social model of disability is built upon. The barriers that exist for people with disabilities come from the attitudes of the society they are part of. The stereotypes, the assumptions and the preconceptions of the person are the barriers, not their actual disability. It starts young with the language we use around children with disabilities for school purposes – they have special needs. Conversations about our children often start with reference to their diagnosis and so it comes to define them. When people can’t visually identify a diagnosis, they ask “What do they have” so they can put a child in a box with a label. My standard response has always been “it’s too complicated to explain to you,” which is code for there is absolutely no reason for me to share this with you other than it will make it easier for you to put her into whatever box you think fits her and makes your life easier.

Seeing Is Believing

The talk is of awareness and understanding, but awareness suggests seeing something and understanding suggests real interaction and conversations. So, before you can really have either of these you need visibility. There is a fabulous video called the Hiring Chain which is built on this premise that when we see people in a way we don’t expect our opinions are questioned and more importantly often changed.

The perceptions, particularly in the workplace of how people with additional needs, will perform a job role are often uninformed, with an emphasis on the concept of reasonable adjustments and how costly or time consuming these might be. However, there are few that haven’t at some point asked their employer for a reasonable adjustment themselves. If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it’s how easy it is to adapt the workplace and fundamentally change the way work is done.

Labels Make Things Easier, Not Better

We like labels because, let’s face it, life is easier if we can group things. But what this means to anyone with a disability is the label diminishes them as an individual and labels them “other” and encourages assumptions around their abilities, how independent they are, how much support they might need and, or worse still, how much sympathy they should be given.

Let’s Celebrate The Ordinary, Not The Extraordinary

You’ve probably seen an image in the last week of a person with additional needs being celebrated online for getting a job or doing a great job. There’s a reason these images are shared: because opinions need changing and there’s always the hope that other organisations might think well if they can do that so can we.

We fear what we do not see, which is why visibility is so important. That’s why organisations fighting for the rights of young people like my daughter share those images of a young person working somewhere, getting a job, doing what everyone else does every day but without the same fanfare. Why do they do this? Because it’s still a novelty which is a damning message about our society! Rather than sharing these success stories, wouldn’t it be great if it was ordinary to see an inclusive and diverse workforce?

Awareness and understanding are all very well, but what we all want is acceptance not based on our abilities (more often judged by others) but as a human being. Only by seeing individuals do we see the individual.