Living with a disability
By Jane Aaronson

Jane Aaronson and her partner Eric McFadd

I speak to you as a woman who is a fully active member of the Unitarian Church of St Mark's here in Edinburgh and who since childhood has been a Unitarian.

These are my credentials. It is only incidentally that I speak to you as a woman who is physically disabled. In other words my argument is going to be that disabled people should be judged primarily by their aptitudes and achievements, just as you would judge an able-bodied person. There should be no place for prejudice.

In this European Year of the Disabled it timely that the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian ChurchesA has chosen as its theme - 'Removing Barriers, Unitarians address disability issues'.

I have been disabled since birth, but many other people are disabled in later life as a result of accident or illness. Disability is no respecter of persons and can enter the life of any one of us. Therefore, the removal of barriers concerns us all, able-bodied and disabled alike.

As I said a moment ago I have been disabled since birth. I have no personal experience of living an able-bodied life. I feel qualified therefore to offer - in this keynote address - four practical points for us to think about in our deliberations this year, whether here or in the districts or in our churches.

What's in a name?

1 My first point asks the question, 'what's in a name?'I am sure that when you use the lavatories in most public places, you would be forgiven for coming away with the impression that there are three species - namely, male, female and disabled. Or, you might wonder, 'How can a lavatory be disabled?' A handful of places are enlightened enough to use the term 'accessible' instead of 'disabled' and I commend them for this. Perhaps the theme of this General Assembly should be reworded 'Unitarians address accessibility issues'.

The barriers in the mind

2 In these brief remarks this evening I do not have time to talk to you about obvious physical barriers, such as flights of stone steps without a hand rail; nor about the personal frustration at having to call for help in everyday situations where the able-bodied among you would find no barrier at all. Rather - and this is my second point - I would ask you to reflect that it is in people's minds that we are likely to find the more stubborn barriers, because these barriers often exist as a result of preconceived and deeply-rooted ideas or prejudices.

From personal experience I have two anecdotes to illustrate this. Some years ago I worked for a charity where my responsibility was to arrange care for disabled people in their own homes. I think I got the job because it was assumed that I would know and understand all about disability. This was not the case and just like any able bodied person in that job, I had to undergo a tough learning curve. I have never forgotten the insights I gained from that period in my life.

My second anecdote is perhaps more light-hearted. When I recently attempted to reserve an accessible double room in an hotel, I was surprised to find that in each of the so-called accessible rooms there was a single bed and a studio couch. The assumption in this hotel was that a disabled person was not expected to be travelling with a partner, but at most with a carer.

Consider the marketable skills

3 This leads me directly to my third point. Please don't make assumptions! Consider the person and not the disability. Look at the person behind the disability. We disabled people are not simply 'wheelchair cases' or 'wheelchair bound'. We are ordinary people with ordinary needs, although we may use a wheelchair. I would go further. A disabled person is quite likely to have marketable skills in aspects such as independence, organisation and motivation. These assets come from the need to develop strategies for coping with everyday life.

Encourage those with disabilities to get involved

4 Fourthly, my experience since moving from Unitarian circles in London (that is Ilford and Enfield and Barnet) to Edinburgh in 1986 is that of being drawn wholeheartedly into the life of St Marks. Therefore I put this question to you: are there disabled people within your congregation who seek to be actively involved and yet need encouragement?

My suggestion would be to have one or two individuals in your congregation who might serve as 'personal mentors' thereby enabling your disabled members to participate in committee work, for example, or in such everyday duties as taking the collection and making coffee.

I have been speaking to you this evening from the viewpoint of one who has been disabled all her life, and I have set out the four points of detail that I specifically want to offer to you.

I would however go further and argue for the more general recognition that it is up to all of us to look beyond the four points and work all the time towards rhe removal of barriers. Common among these barriers are: unhelpful stereotyping, lack of accessible transport and housing, lack of understanding of our needs and expectations. And over and above these barriers there is one more, and that is prejudice. Such prejudice used to be widespread, and although it has diminished in recent years, there is surely further progress to be made.

The theme implicit in my short talk this evening has been that, although legislation may help, it is down to us to work positively to remove barriers and counteract prejudice wherever they occur.

I leave you with a parting thought. I heard on the radio recently that in Malta there is in a car park a sign that reads

In a word, that sums it up - we seek to be DISLABLED.

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