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The barriers of socialising as a disabled person
My name is Emily, I’m a 24-year-old blogger and
disability campaigner from the North East of England. I use a wheelchair and
you’ll often find me tweeting about #accessfails! I’m passionate about the
barriers that many disabled people face in their daily lives and how we can
work together to break them down.
Like many others, I use Twitter as a way of connecting with other disabled people. I recently participated in a thread relating to the difficulties that many disabled people face when it comes to socialising and meeting new people. I was really struck by some of the comments describing the impact that these barriers can have. One person even said that they hadn’t left their own postcode for over a year as they felt unable to cope with the barrage of barriers that visiting unfamiliar places presented to them.
According to research by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, over half of disabled people report that they feel lonely. Reflecting on my own experiences, and reading about the experiences of others online, I find myself to be sadly unsurprised by this statistic. It got me thinking, as this year marks a decade since the Equality Act (2010), why is it that disabled people are still confronted with so many barriers to socialise with others?
I’ve suffered with generalized anxiety for a long time, but when I became disabled, a new kind of anxiety started to appear in my life; I like to call it Access Anxiety. The snazzy name refers to the high levels of anxiety I often experience when I want to go out and socialise, but fear what accessibility issues I may encounter on the way there and when I arrive. These issues could involve anything from inaccessibility of public transport, to visiting somewhere new and discovering there’s a set of stairs up to the entrance which they failed to mention on their website.
These problems can be significantly intensified when you’re meeting somebody new – whether that’s a friend, a date or even a potential employer. Fortunately, my close friends are now familiar with the places that do work for me and which won’t. However, when I’m meeting somebody new, I have a choice to make. Do I risk freaking them out by going into the full detail of where I can and can’t meet, or do I just hope they choose somewhere suitable? Or do I just avoid the situation altogether? Sometimes I find it too exhausting to deal with Access Anxiety and having to explain why I can’t meet new people at certain places or do certain things. I often find it easier to just deal with the FOMO and stay home with my most reliable friend (…Netflix).
Society’s perception of disabled people
Access Anxiety is not the only thing I have to worry about when it comes to meeting somebody new. Whilst we have come a long way in terms of society’s perception and treatment of disabled people, we still have a long way to go. I believe that one of the greatest barriers that I and other disabled people face is being met with poor understanding from able-bodied people.
When meeting somebody new, I must decide if I need to give them some sort of pre-warning that I’m disabled. Whilst I don’t really think I should ever have to do this; I can never really know how somebody is going to react to my disability. So sometimes giving them a head’s up can avoid awkward moments.
I’ve experienced all kinds of reactions, some positive, some negative, and some that are just weird! Of course, there’s always the chance they’re going to give you that startled look accompanied with “Oh, what’s wrong with you?”. Some people really seem to struggle to separate the disability from the individual in front of them, and some days it’s just exhausting to have to explain yourself yet again.
According to The Red Cross, one in two able-bodied people believe they have nothing in common with disabled people. A quarter admit they have actively avoided engaging in conversation with a disabled person. It’s no wonder then that it’s so hard to meet new people as a disabled person, when you’re met with pre-judgment and misunderstanding. Sometimes, knowing all of this makes me want to avoid meeting new people as it just doesn’t feel worth it.
What can we do?
The fight for equal treatment and access is ongoing. Barriers need to be tackled piece by piece. It’s okay if you aren’t feeling in a position to fight it today. But if you are, I believe that sharing your experiences is one of the most powerful things you can do, whether that’s online or in person. Disabled people deserve to socialise and make new connections as much as anybody else. If you aren’t disabled and encounter somebody who is, think about how you can be a good ally. It’s always good to ask what you can do to help.
Have you faced barriers when socialising? What did you find helps? Let us know in the comments below!