It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many people living with a disability have to deal with misconceptions and stigma on a daily basis. From ignorance and prejudice, to barriers to work and education, the effects of these misconceptions can have profound and wide-ranging effects on the lives of disabled people.
UKS Mobility recently talked to 18 bloggers about their experiences and the misconceptions that those living with a disability face. Here, we take a closer look at the most common misconceptions they mentioned. We hope this will help raise awareness and reduce the stigma and improve conversation around disability.
1. All people with disabilities use wheelchairs
This is one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding disability. People are often only assumed to be disabled if they use a wheelchair, but this erases a large proportion of the disabled community. Just 8% of people with disabilities use a wheelchair.
In fact, disability covers a very broad spectrum of conditions. Many disabilities are invisible, such as visual and auditory impairments, autism, fibromyalgia and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Each of these disabilities can have a profound effect on the person affected, but often these people are left underserved by society or even treated as frauds. By reducing disability to a very narrow spectrum, we leave people facing more stigma.
Kirsten Schultz, who blogs at Not Standing Still’s Disease explains the way this misconception makes life more difficult: “Having multiple invisible illnesses, I struggle with people not believing I’m sick. I get sneered at from older people, stared at by those closer to my age and occasionally get comments about using my handicapped placard.”
Similarly, Katherine Bouton notes the extent to which people assume that having a disability = using a wheelchair: “Quite a few people I know have checked off "hearing loss" as a disability needing accommodation at an airport (meaning signs, etc) and have found that someone has instead sent a wheelchair to meet them at the gate.”
2. People with disabilities don’t want or can’t be in relationships
The idea that disabled people are unable to have romantic and sexual relationships is one of the most damaging misconceptions, as it creates a barrier that makes it more challenging for people with disabilities to experience these things. A lot of people assume that those with disabilities are asexual or don’t have the same need for love and romance. This frequently crosses the line into prejudice and preconception – in 2008, 70% of UK adults surveyed said that they probably wouldn’t have sex with someone with a physical disability.
This misconception often means people with disabilities are not given adequate levels of reproductive and sexual health education whilst at school. This can cause problems further down the line, leaving younger people and those with learning disabilities particularly vulnerable to abuse. It’s vital that people with disabilities are given access to the same education and services as able-bodied people.
Similarly, it’s often assumed that people with disabilities can only date other disabled people. Nicola Golding describes her experiences with this: “People always seem surprised when they find out my boyfriend is my boyfriend because they always assume he’s my brother. If someone hasn’t met then the first question I’m often asked about him is ‘is he disabled too?’ which always feels like people assume I couldn’t have an able-bodied partner.”
3. People with disabilities don’t want to travel
Many people believe that those living with disabilities can’t travel, or don’t want to travel. This is often based on a narrow set of assumptions – for instance, that those with disabilities don’t have the money to travel, or even that they’d “obviously” rather stay at home.
In reality, this simply isn’t the case. Many people with disabilities love to travel; in just two years in the USA, 25 million adults with disabilities made trips for leisure and business, altogether taking 73 million trips and spending around $17.3 billion.
Despite this, it’s often a lack of accessible facilities that poses the biggest challenge to disabled travellers. Businesses and hotels often don’t know what people with disabilities need and fail to provide adequate facilities. For example, nearly three quarters of airline passengers with disabilities have experienced physical obstacles or miscommunication with airlines, and 8 in 10 have reported barriers and difficulties in UK hotels and resorts.
It’s clear that the most important step to resolving issues around travelling with a disability is more understanding and better accommodation of disabled peoples’ needs. As blogger Cory Lee puts it, “We lead extraordinary lives and want to travel, just like anyone else. We just need destinations to be a bit more accommodating to make that a reality. When destinations do focus on accessibility, we’ll be thrilled to visit and spend our money there.”
4. People with disabilities are dependent on others
It’s often assumed that people with disabilities can’t be independent and require large amounts of assistance and care. This is rarely the case. People with disabilities may have to adapt the way they do things, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t live independent lives. This can lead to patronizing behavior and awkward situations – for example, people with disabilities often find that people don’t talk to them directly, instead directing conversation at their friends and companions. “People in public try to talk to whomever I’m with, but I often open my mouth and surprise the stranger,” explains Laura Robb.
We need to remember that people with disabilities are individuals and should be treated as such. Moreover, they can lead fulfilling and independent lives. Glen from Well Eye Never articulates this misconception: “It then takes people by surprise when they learn how much I do actually get out and about, on my own or with others, visiting lots of different places and having fun at lots of social events.”
5. Life with a disability isn’t normal
Really, many of the other misconceptions about disability stem from this one – that life with a disability is abnormal, and that disabled people are “different” to everyone else. It’s this notion that makes people assume those with disabilities live entirely different lives and don’t enjoy the same things as able-bodied people – whether that’s travel, romantic relationships or even getting a job.
Additionally, people sometimes treat life with a disability as if it’s either very terrible or inherently heroic and inspiring. Cara Liebowitz talks about this, saying “People tend to think in one of two extremes: that life with a disability is either a never-ending tragedy, day after day, or, conversely, that it's wonderful and happy and filled with rainbows and unicorns. The truth is, life with a disability is just that - life. I have good days and bad days just like everyone else.” The end result is that those with disabilities are treated as abnormal, without the same emotions and experiences as able-bodied people.
There are many reasons these misconceptions are blatantly untrue. For one, disability isn’t uncommon – 1 in 5 people are affected by some form of disability during their lifetimes. Furthermore, there’s no real baseline for “normal” – everyone on the planet has radically different experiences and stories, and their own challenges that they have to overcome. People with disabilities are no different and are perfectly capable of living a normal life.
Often, the biggest barriers to a normal life are the very misconceptions that we’ve discussed in this article. They create unnecessary barriers and accessibility issues for disabled people and foster a societal wide prejudice and lack of understanding. Once disability is better understood, the conversation around it can be more productive.
However, it’s not all negative. We’re already making big leaps, and disability awareness has come a long way in recent decades. As Glen from Well Eye Never puts it “Things are gradually moving in the right direction, there is more awareness out there these days. But there is still more work to be done too.”
About the Author
Natalie Granger is a Content Writer at UKS Mobility, a family business with over twelve years experience supplying mobility equipment and healthcare products to the public. If you’d like to share your experiences around this topic, feel free to email Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.