In this refreshing radio interview trainee doctor Grace Spence Green, disabled as a result of a freak accident, defies expectations about how she ‘should’ feel. Grace explains that what makes her angry is not the accident but disablist attitudes and a lack of everyday accessibility: ‘I get angry when someone pushes my wheelchair when I haven’t asked them to’ she says. Grace’s description of this ‘violation’ is powerful: ‘for the rest of the day I feel really awful…someone pushes me, like I’m not a human being’.
Such disabling actions are commonplace and behind them lies anxiety and how we deal with it. Pity (a very distanced and unequal form of sympathy), nervousness, ignoring the person, pushing a wheelchair without interacting with or asking the wheelchair user, and so on, can be thought of as ways of dealing with the discomfort and anxiety stirred up by impairment. The disabled person is thus ‘not like us’ and, in splitting like this, our own, evidently fragile, sense of ourselves may be, for that moment, protected.
For Grace, what was important was establishing, very early on after her accident, that she could continue her medical training. When her university responded positively, she felt she could get on with life.
Depending on the exact situation such a decision might involve lots of practical steps – extending funding, allowing more time, ensuring buildings and facilities were accessible or making necessary adaptions, addressing attitudes. These are all matters that could be viewed as providing, not only practically, but in terms of its emotional effect what Winnicott called a ‘facilitating environment’. As Grace said, ‘most disabled people just want accessible places’. And yet – as the impact of Covid on disabled people has shown – it remains necessary to continue to advocate for this very basic inclusive environment.