Jayne Dowle: Disabled people deserve more than pat answers

WOULD you pat a fully-grown woman on the head? Of course you wouldn’t. Well, try being in a wheelchair for a day. If you’re not being tutted at, ignored, talked over or generally treated as if you have the mental age of a toddler, somebody might not be able to stop themselves. I’m sad, but not surprised, to hear that it happens to Paralympic gold-medallist Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson all the time.

She’s 44, and was appointed to the House of Lords in 2010, but this is what she said in a recent interview: “I’m still quite frequently called the young girl in the wheelchair… more recently in the corridors people have been patting me on the head.”

Much has been done to reform the House of Lords, but clearly not enough. And these are well-educated, well-informed people we are talking about. If such patronising behaviour can happen here, it can – and it does – happen anywhere. On buses. In shopping centres. On holiday.

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In her own dignified way, Dame Tanni – whose husband comes from Hull – is determined to change society’s attitude towards people who cannot walk. All power to her, I say. We are supposed to be a tolerant society. Yet our tolerance of those with mobility issues such as her spina bifida is pretty non-existent.

I speak from bitter experience. My mother has severe osteoarthritis and has to use a mobility scooter to get around. When she was my age, she walked several miles a day, worked hard and never took a rest. The day she had to admit that her legs wouldn’t work any longer was a very sad day indeed.

She’s a fighter though, and she didn’t want to give in. So she got herself a scooter and it gives her the freedom to go about her life as normally as she can. To a point. You should see how people treat her. I’ve been shopping with her and assistants totally ignore what she is saying and talk to me instead. I’ve been in cafes when waitresses assume she can’t give her own order. I’ve heard of her battles with holiday companies who refuse to take her scooter on their coaches because of “health and safety issues”.

I know that she can’t use public transport with confidence because not all buses and trains are accessible, despite the Disability Discrimination Act.

Now my mother, like Dame Tanni, is only a little person. She’s just about touching five foot two. She’s not a child though. She’s a feisty 70-year-old with a lot more common sense than me. It makes me very angry indeed to witness people talk over her as if she isn’t there. I want to shake them and say this: “She might not be able to walk very far, but she can still hear you and she can still see you.”

One of these days I will. If she doesn’t first.

It doesn’t surprise me either to hear that eight out of 10 disabled people still feel that there has been no improvement in attitudes towards them, despite the success of the London Paralympics.

A recent survey by the charity Scope found that many individuals feel themselves to be stigmatised as “benefit scroungers”, and suffer from violence and intimidation. How can we call ourselves a civilised society when we allow this to happen?

If anything though, it’s the very conditions of our society which have allowed such intolerance and lack of understanding to take root. We’re all in a rush to get here, there and everywhere. We give scant regard to anyone who can’t walk as fast as we can, never mind those who can’t even walk at all.

People raise money for this, raise awareness of that, attempt to save the polar bear and trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in the name of doing good for others. Yet how many individuals can say, hand on heart, that every time they see a person who can’t walk they extend those feelings of sympathy and compassion?

We need more high-profile individuals like Dame Tanni to shout up. However, we also need to look to our own personal attitudes towards those less agile than ourselves. It doesn’t need to be complicated or demanding. Just think – how would I like to be treated if that was me?

Take the other day. I was driving along and a young girl on crutches, clearly battling with a disability, was attempting to cross a suburban side-street. This wasn’t a busy dual carriageway or a city thoroughfare. It was early evening, not rush hour. What driver could have been in such a hurry? Yet four cars sped past her as she attempted to navigate the road. I slowed down and waved her across. Behind me was a police car. If I’d have been that police officer, I would have got out and stopped the traffic to allow her to cross safely and with confidence. I’m sure he had some other, much more vital business, to attend to. Still though, it would have been a step in the right direction.

We all need to learn how to take those steps – to help those who can’t take steps by themselves.