‘Weren’t they very good to give you a job with the wheelchair’
Exchanges I’ve had with strangers highlight the negative attitudes that still exist towards people with disabilities
Aisling Glynn and Gina .
A couple of weeks ago I went to the hairdresser during my lunch break. I started chatting to the lady beside me as we waited. In a very friendly way, she asked what (charity or care) service I was with. I answered politely and said I lived nearby.
A few minutes later, I was back at my desk drafting a Will for a client. As we were waiting for the Will to be printed, the client said “I suppose you play a lot of golf?”.
This time, I smiled to myself and said that golf wasn’t really my thing. Two very different perceptions in the space of an hour.
The difference? One saw my electric wheelchair, and the other didn’t.
This isn’t at all unusual.
Last month I attended a hearing with a colleague. The adjudicator approached to introduce herself. She bypassed me and asked the person standing nearby whether she was the Solicitor.
Last year I arrived at a local courthouse to meet a client for a case that I had been working on for three years.
I had met this client at least 15 times over this period. On the day of the hearing, the door opened and the client looked at me in complete shock and said: “What the hell happened to you?”
Again, she had only ever seen me in my office, behind my desk. Despite our numerous meetings, over three years, she had never noticed the wheelchair.
My experience over the past few years has taught me a lot about people’s perceptions. Last summer someone approached me in a local pub and asked, outright, “how can someone in a wheelchair become a solicitor?”
Recently, I was at a medical appointment and was being advised to incorporate a new treatment into my daily routine. I wondered whether every day was necessary.
The medical professional looked slightly puzzled and said that there were plenty of hours in the day. I said, yes, but that I was busy for a lot of those hours.
The puzzled look remained. “At work,” I said.
You work? She said, of course . . . . but her face said it all.
I find these exchanges very interesting, and often amusing. However, they highlight the negative perceptions and attitudes that still exist towards people with disabilities in Ireland. People with disabilities are still often seen as incapable, or certainly as less capable. A report published by the ESRI last year found that people with disabilities in Ireland are four times less likely to be employed. The report found that, despite wanting to work, people with a disability are less likely to get a job. In 2017, 31 per cent of working-age people with a disability were at work compared to 71 per cent of those without a disability. I know many people with disabilities who are working.
Unfortunately, the number of people I know with disabilities who are not working is significantly higher.
Having acquired a physical disability as a young teenager, I began using a wheelchair at the age of 17. I have spent almost half of my life as an able bodied person and half of it as a disabled person. I know that everyday life is more difficult with a disability. Living with a disability means being dependent on others for many everyday things. For me, this includes getting up and dressed and ready for work, being transported to and from work and relying on others for the less obvious things, such as opening doors (luckily I have a fantastic assistance dog Gina to help with some of those doors).
Accepting help from others is part of everyday life.
For me, work has been the best way to balance and counter the inescapable realities of living with a disability. Work brings a sense of fulfillment and self-reliance, and it’s refreshing to have people being dependent and reliant on me between nine and five!
Balancing a busy job with a disability is not without its challenges.
It takes a lot of planning and organising and it can be difficult to fit in medical appointments and not to neglect that aspect of things. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by supportive family, friends and colleagues and I have many supports in place, both formally and informally, without which my working life would be impossible.
When I qualified eight years ago and started my job, I met an older man on my way to work one morning. He said: “Weren’t they very good to give you a job with the wheelchair.”
I often meet this man on my way in and out of the office or at lunch time. Now we have more typical conversations about the weather or the news, and he always asks if I’m busy at work.
I know his perception and attitude has changed.