I’m a lucky cripple. I’m pretty, I can walk short distances on flat terrain, go up a fight of stairs with help. I received a huge amount of therapy and education growing up, thanks largely to the tireless effort of my parents for years. I can wear fashionable clothes, go out at a moments notice, and use bathroom by myself. Most of my friends forget I’m disabled. I’m lucky, I can pass.
But I’m not a Paralympic Athlete, that shiny new form of disability that is almost enviable. They have spreads in fashion magazines, transfer onto couches to chat with talk show hosts, and get to open supermarkets. It’s seen as a great point of progress in our society, that we finally are including disabled people in public, recognising that some people need different things in order to be successful. So long as they pass.
The fact is, recently there’s been a double standard in what it means to be disabled. Increased acceptance is only available to some, so long as you fit into what society’s standards of with a person with a disability should be like. The rest of of are labeled benefit scroungers, invalids, burdens, or worse.
This has become very clear to me over the past seven months, which is how long I’ve been without my wheelchair. Last October I was on my way to interview a NASA scientist for my series when I was denied carriage on a British Airways flight out of London City Airport. When the staff returned my wheelchair, the chair’s computer was so badly damaged it was no longer safe to drive. When I asked for help, I was told by a British Airway representative that the situation “can’t be that bad.”
British Airways will fly the entire GB Paralympic Team to the Rio Games this year.
The problem is the corporation uses the fact that they sponsor Team GB as proof that they treat all people with disabilities well. Never mind that they’ve refused to carriage to people simply because they had Downs Syndrome, or that the US Department of Transportation fined the company last month for their treatment of passengers with disabilities, or that they have a guide dog tax for the people who need to fly with assistance dogs, which no other airline does, or all the other people who have made contact with me over the past seven months who have also had their wheelchair’s broken by British Airways.
Paralympic athletes are lucky in the same way that I am lucky, a combination of what our disability left and what it took away us makes up who we are. If my cerebral palsy affected me cognitively I probably wouldn’t be on a flight to interview a guy who works with NASA. I have the ability to write well, have my voice heard, and be noticed. These are skills I have honed from gifts I already had. But that doesn’t mean that I deserve more human rights than someone who has other difficulties. The fact is, there’s a word for parties who offer one set of standards to disable people who manage to ‘pass’ and then turn around and assume those of who don’t are “benefit scroungers.” They’re called hypocrites.
Progress for one is not necessarily progress for all. For years I thought it was. I was wrong. Seeing a company give great service to Paralympic athletes and use that fact as proof that they treat people with disabilities well, while refusing me carriage, has taught me otherwise. It’s not how you treat the ‘lucky ones’ that matters. It’s how you treat the most vulnerable, the most complicated, the scariest, when no one else is looking which determines your character.
A double standard towards people with disabilities isn’t progress. It is more prejudice, dressed up as advancement, something to be proud of, box ticking, a public relations trick and political agendas. Nobody is served by double standards. Those of us who ‘pass’ are whisked into an illusion where we falsely believe that the world is changing. Those of us who don’t ‘pass’ are continued to be held down by no fault of their own.
True change is slow and can only be measured through consistency and not double standards.