It’s a tone of voice. All disabled people recognise it. People. Speak. Slowly. And. Say. My name. A lot. (In case I have forgotten it.) They are also upbeat! Indeed, overwhelmingly and gratingly positive! It’s the same tone used for what are deemed to be confused older people, and I hate it – because I am disabled, not confused and not hard of hearing.
My mobility is worsening, due to multiple sclerosis. I walk with a stick, and increasingly notice a common lilt when speaking with official agencies. Recently, I contacted a charity for help with installing some curtain poles – doing so myself might lead to a fall, and fractured bones are too high a price for classy interior design. Its clientele is predominantly of the aged persuasion, and someone answered the call loudly saying: “MRS ANDERSON! HOW CAN WE HELP?”
By not patronising me? I explained that I was disabled, and to our mutual relief they immediately understood, adopting a more fitting tone, reflective of me not being hard of hearing and befuddled.
If you apply for a disabled travel pass, you’ll notice the website features snowy-haired older folk. How must younger disabled people feel? Imagine being a wheelchair user in your teens faced with images more suited to your grandparents’ than your own concerns? Examples of this unpleasant assumption are widespread. Signs on transport asking for seats to be relinquished for those “who need it more” often depict stooping frail people. Older people might feel dismissed, too – given most of them are still in possession of their faculties.
I once had to speak to an energy company when I was temporarily blind due to MS. This company was determined to send a man to read my meter, stressing that he’d have photo ID, despite my reluctance. I explained to a surly unhelpful woman that ID is useless to me – being blind and everything. In an instant, her tone switched from disinterested hostility to gushing, sparkling (fake) warmth. Newly helpful, she said she didn’t know she was speaking to a “lovely disabled lady!” and summoned her supervisor to help. Tetchily I explained that I wasn’t “lovely” but was irritated and wanted to be treated as a sentient adult. This is far from unusual. But I can be lovely on a good day, when I’m not being condescended to.
When my living situation was being investigated by a housing worker, I had one official who spoke to me s … l … o … w … l … y. When it became clear I did not require the suggested sheltered housing, the official then invited me to a drop-in help centre and shouted that I would be offered “a cup of tea and a sausage roll”. There’s a twee condescension to it all. How do they treat people who really are older, but have full and active lives? And what of younger people who require the assistance of supported housing?
Genuine help when requested is very much appreciated. But when imposed thoughtlessly, it’s upsetting.
I was waiting for a bus, lost in thoughts about an exhibition I had just attended, when an official wearing the dreaded hi-vis vest practically swatted the queue to one side with a clipboard, booming: “This poor lady needs to sit down!” I prefer to avoid those punitive, haemorrhoid-inducing defensive spikes that pass for seating in bus shelters. And I can speak for myself. She was aghast that I declined the seat. On another occasion, I nearly lost it completely when a bus driver exclaimed that I was “too young for a walking stick”.
What might help is training, clearly stressing that there is a difference between disability and the restrictions that may come with age. So please listen to disabled people, pay attention to their genuine needs and don’t make assumptions – older people might be thankful, too.