Last year I missed Blogging Against Disablism Day, so this year I am determined to write something. I decided to write this year about changing attitudes towards disabled people as experienced by myself and my husband. We are both blind.
I believe that the government and the media have a lot to answer for. Long-term unemployed people are branded as work-shy scroungers and people who claim disability benefits are probably fakers. Members of the public are actively encouraged to seek out these fakers and scroungers and expose them for fraudulently claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. Around 50% of disabled people are currently unemployed, this being a higher percentage than for those who are able bodied, so the belief on the streets is that disabled people are more work-shy than their non-disabled peers.
The figure for blind people is much higher. Currently around 70% of blind people of working age are unemployed. The really worrying statistic though, obtained by the DWP in recent years, says that 90% of employers say that it would be difficult or impossible to employ a blind person. For the remainder of this article I will write from the blind person’s perspective, as that is what I know best.
My husband is unemployed. He was made redundant from a team administrator post a year ago. He is highly motivated, intelligent and organised. He has applied for hundreds of jobs in the last year and has only had a handful of interviews. One or two people have suggested that he should stop disclosing his blindness on application forms and I can see why. With the number of applications which are received for every vacancy it must be very easy to just put aside the one from the blind applicant. Employers need only say that other applications met the selection criteria better and they are covered. There can be no proof that they threw out the blind applicant because they were blind and they know it. My husband shares the opinion of many blind people, including me, that it is better to disclose disability in an application to avoid any unpleasantness later on. The other problem we face as blind people is the fact that, if we find ourselves unemployed, we can’t just go and get a bar job, a cleaning job, a job in a restaurant or fast food establishment, or work in a supermarket stacking shelves. These jobs all require the applicant to be able to see and are impossible to adapt for blind people. So, the uninitiated out there see blind people as simply not trying.
My husband has asked for help on two occasions in the last year from Jobcentre Plus. The first time was when he requested a meeting with the Disability Employment Advisor (DEA). He hoped to receive some additional advice or support with his job search. The DEA said that there wasn’t anything he could do and suggested, if my husband didn’t find work, that he should re-train, either at a specialist college for blind people in Hereford, or at a college locally for people with all disabilities. Incidentally this was almost identical to the advice provided to my friend’s son who is 19 and has Asperger’s syndrome. The second time he asked for help was to fill in a huge form to see if he would be eligible for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). He made an appointment at Jobcentre Plus for someone to do this for him. When he got there they were surprised that he hadn’t already filled in the form prior to the appointment. After several more conversations he decided not to pursue this as he probably wouldn’t get any benefit. During those conversations he was asked if I could fill in these forms at work with someone helping me (not appropriate), and he was accused of time wasting (downright rude). I’ve written more about this in my previous blog post. So, in short, my husband wants desperately to work, he can’t get a job and apart from his Disability Living Allowance (DLA) he receives no money from the government. Hardly the behaviour of a scrounger.
I do work. I’m in the same low level job that I’ve had for the last 20 years with no option for career development. This is primarily because much of the software I support is inaccessible so I have no way of becoming an expert. My confidence has been severely eroded because of things which happen to me during my time at work which I can’t go into in this blog. I have sought legal advice and I received the conclusion this week. Legally I have no case to take to tribunal because I can’t prove that things which have been happening for the last year when I started my documentation, happened because I am disabled, despite the fact that it is only me that they are happening to. People who know me ask why I stick it in my job. The reason is explained in the paragraph about my husband. We can’t afford for neither of us to have work with very little prospect of getting any.
There are other little things that can often ruin our day. If we decided to pursue all of them, we wouldn’t have a life to call our own. I was slapped for walking into someone by mistake. I was called a scrounger when I accidentally walked into an open car door, even though I was on my way home from work at the time. I was accused of faking because I was using an iPhone on a bus. It was queried whether I could take my guide dog into a first class lounge, even though I had a first class ticket in my hand. I could give countless examples of times when booked assistance hasn’t shown up at railway stations, or of times where we have been left because someone in a wheelchair needed assistance. Although I haven’t been refused a taxi in the last year, I have had countless journeys where the driver will go on and on about why he won’t normally take dogs. Once, after my guide dog had his shoulder put back after dislocating it, he jumped onto the seat in a taxi which he is not allowed to do. I was profuse in my apologies to the driver but he wasn’t accepting that. I finally got rid of him by paying him £10 on top of the fare because he said he’d have to go and clean the car. In reality a few minutes with some cellotape would have got rid of the hairs my dog left on the seat. Of course there are the continuing problems of people talking to me like a five-year-old, talking to my sighted companion instead of me if I am with one, and, worst of all, people who go silent on a bus or in a café for example when I walk in and need to find a seat.
All these problems arise from people’s attitudes and for whatever reason, these are getting worse. I believe that a lot of people are afraid of blindness so dismiss us and assume we are capable of nothing. Also most people are in too much of a hurry to help or don’t know what to say. The Political Correctness brigade have a lot to answer for there. That, however, is a topic for a whole post on its own.
If you’ve stuck with me this far through this post, you’ll probably be thinking that I must be very unhappy but this is not the case. I have a wonderful relationship with my husband, he’s my best friend and my rock. I have kind neighbours and the most amazing friends anyone could wish for. Before I post this article, I’d like to write about some of the things that have happened to improve our lives in the last year.
Many people would say that Apple products are too expensive for what they are and that those of us who buy them are paying for a brand. If I didn’t have to consider accessibility I’d probably say the same. Apple have built accessibility for blind and partially sighted people into their operating systems. Although I’ve had an iPhone for a couple of years, for me there have been some major break-throughs in the last year.
The biggest one for me was when the Kindle app became compatible with Voiceover making Kindle titles available to me. No more discussing a book with friends or colleagues, only to wonder if it would be one of the chosen few each month that made it into Braille. I remember the first time it hit home. I was talking to my sister at her kitchen table about a book she was reading and enjoying. I found it and bought it straight away and the following morning I’d read half of it! I had £25 given to me in Amazon vouchers at Christmas and was so excited that I’d been able to buy 14 books. This to most people wouldn’t seem like much, but to me and blind people like me, it was like being a child let loose in a sweet shop.
We discovered a few months ago that the Virgin Tevo box we have for recording from the TV, which had not previously been usable by a blind person was now controllable by an accessible app on the iPhone. Also this year we bought a hi-fi which has an accessible app to control it. So no more limited functionality for us! It’s even possible to control your central heating with an app. I’m just waiting for a Wi-Fi enabled washing machine.
Bus travel has suddenly become a whole lot easier too. There are several very affordable GPS apps, again for the iPhone, so it is possible to keep a check on our location so limiting the possibility of getting off at the wrong stop. Nottingham City Transport are also introducing talking buses (buses with spoken announcements for each stop) which is the best thing ever. I can feel myself physically relaxing when I get on a bus with announcements.
So there is my contribution for Blogging Against Disablism Day. It may appear a bit disjointed, but for me it sums up the bad, and the good, and hopefully explains why we don’t throw in the towel. Thank you for reading.