By Shani Dhanda, disability activist
As a disabled person, I’ve faced microaggressions and discrimination all my life. I was born with a condition called Osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, which means my bones are weak and can fracture more easily, and due to my condition I have a short stature. I’m 3ft 10 and that’s fine with me - it’s other people who can find it hard to cope with. Growing up, I hated my disability identity because of the attitudes I faced, but what I experienced has made me the person I am today.
Growing up disabled
I grew up in a big Sikh community, where attitudes to disability were very negative and still are. From my early years my abilities were judged. I felt ‘less than’ other people, and went to a special needs primary school because it was accessible to me as a wheelchair user – but it wasn’t the right choice in terms of my learning: I missed a lot of school due to my brittle bone disease and felt I didn’t shine academically.
As I grew up, my teachers weren’t sure how to help or advise me about my future. I had a session after GCSEs with a careers counsellor; they didn’t ask me what my interests were or what I wanted to do, and simply advised me to “get a job with the council” as they ”like to employ disabled people”. At age 16 I learnt the hard lesson that my ability will always be judged by my appearance, whether as a disabled person, a woman, a South Asian woman, or all three.
However, I defied everyone’s expectations by having a successful career in events management, before turning to disability activism full time.
In my twenties, I became involved in activism as I hadn’t seen any progress in attitudes towards disability or ethnicity. One in five of us in the UK has a disability, that’s just over 14 million people, yet our voices are still not heard when decisions are made about our daily lives. The world and society isn’t designed for me: my home isn’t fit for purpose; buying clothes is difficult as I have to have them tailored, and getting around on public transport is still hard.
How we view disability
I’m very grateful for all the medical care I’ve had and continue to receive, but the medical model of disability focuses on your impairment and can feel very negative. My religion has also been a challenge as it tells me I’m like this because I’ve done something wrong in a past life.
Disability is an experience – we’re not disabled by our disabilities and impairments, it’s the physical barriers, and bias, prejudice and negative attitudes that are disabling. This is the social model of disability, which sees the context in which disabled people live as the issue, and it’s where disability activists like me can have a real impact. We have so far to go with disability inclusion as microaggressions and ableism are still very prevalent.
Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities.
Rooted in the assumption that disabled people need 'fixing', ableism defines people by their disability. It can be extreme, or very subtle. For example, I’m of restricted height and hate it when people stop and take intrusive pictures of me in the street to post on social media. In the past, I would have ignored this, but now I confront it as I don’t want that to happen to someone else.
Ableism is often unintentional, and many people can be completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions. For example, jokingly saying ‘I’m a bit OCD’ about the way you like to arrange your desk completely fails to recognise how serious that medical condition can be for those whose lives are limited by it.
It’s great to see RPS highlighting the microaggressions faced by people with disabilities. Microaggressive behaviour is experienced by people with visible and non-visible disabilities, and it’s exhausting. Helping make people aware of the assumptions they make about a person’s skills, abilities and temperament because of their disability is vital.
If you’re non disabled you can help by educating yourself and amplifying the voices of disabled people. Be an ally and stand alongside us – it can be a bumpy ride, but together we can make the world a better place for everyone.
RPS: Watch Shani’s workshop on microaggressions.
We want to encourage voices that express the diversity of lived experiences in the profession as part of our inclusion and diversity work. If you’d like to share your story, contact [email protected] or get involved through our ABCD group.