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At what price dignity?

In his wisdom, Mahatma Gandhi once said:

“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”

I have experienced so much vulnerability since MS robbed me of my legs, my job, my salary, my independence. No-one ever wants to feel vulnerable, dependent or that they are a burden, but unfortunately due to illness or accident, this is the reality for some of us. The experiences of being vulnerable and less able can quickly translate into feelings of low self-worth: “Am I now useless? Does my life have less value because I am disabled?”. The way societies deal with their disabled citizens can tell you a lot, and this week’s blog will deal with just one moving example of how life can be made intolerable by a refusal to treat disabled people with compassion and consideration.

Rhian A’s story, in her own words...

Rhian (left) and her mother, Lynda (right)
Rhian (left) and her mother, Lynda (right)

My name is Rhian, I’m 37 a mother of two from Cardiff. I help care for my mother, Lynda. She was diagnosed with late onset Cerebella Ataxia at the age of 57. It’s a rare, degenerative neurological condition that affects balance, coordination, speech and swallow mainly.

My mother’s mobility has deteriorated significantly in the last two years and due to that has lost quite a bit of her independence, which as you can imagine has left her feeling low and frustrated. She strives to live her life to the full every single day. As she isn’t able to wash her own hair these days, her weekly appointments at the hairdressers have helped her tremendously over the last two years. She has been with the same hair salon for over a decade.

“Her dignity stripped away in an instant”

A few days ago the salon owner approached us when we arrived and told me (in front of her and the rest of the salon) that my mother wasn’t able to come to her appointments any longer unless she was accompanied by a “trained and professional private nurse.” They continued to state that the two steps to the basin was too much for her to handle as well as her visiting the WC unaccompanied. I have asked the salon if they could fit a handrail on the steps and in the WC on many occasions which they have refused to do so “because we don’t have to” being their reason. They also stated that her friend who accompanies her sometimes to assist her on the step “is too old” to accompany her. Her friend travels the world alone and is very active and independent . My mother was extremely upset by the whole ordeal and humiliated in front of strangers. The salon were abrupt and rude and addressed her in the third person. This is an educated woman, a retired Clinical Psychologist, her dignity stripped away in an instant. The whole ordeal left us shaken up and upset. She had been a loyal customer for over a decade, had spent thousands of pounds there over the years. Now that she didn’t fit their idea of a client she was being told she wasn’t welcome because of her disabilities.

Where is the compassion? Society has so much yet to learn…

What has happened to society? Where is the compassion? Equality and human rights are a real passion of mine. Society has so much yet to learn. The salon owners could have fit a couple of handrails for around £300 hardly breaking the bank. However their mentality was “we don’t have to.” They weren’t even aware that businesses that supply a service have a duty to their disabled clients. Under the Equality Act 2010, as a service provider, not only do they have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for an individual who is at a substantial disadvantage at that time due to their disability, they also have to take positive steps to ensure that they anticipate the needs of potential disabled customers before they access their service. It may be that they:

  • Change a provision, criterion or practice

  • Change a physical feature, and/or

  • Provide an auxiliary aid.

If it is reasonable for them the service provider to make an adjustment then it must be made. A failure to comply with this duty could be unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. Why should someone be treated differently because of a disability? Why does society continue to view those with a disability as being of less value ?

These are fundamental questions that need to be addressed. Any of us could be hit with a disability at any stage in our life. These changes need to happen now. Clearly businesses aren’t aware what they are supposed to be doing, a large part of society have their blinkers on. There needs to be an overhaul of the whole attitude to disability, legislation needs to be loud and clear on the matter and attitudes need to challenged at ground level.

In conclusion…

You can help make things better: please don’t walk through life with your blinkers on – open your eyes and your heart to those who are different, or less able. In these challenging times, austerity and populist politics seek to divide us into “us and them” or the “haves and have-nots”. By falling for the politics of division, we lose contact with empathy and compassion for fellow human beings, which can lead to the break-up of our communities, from horrendous massacres like Christchurch, to simply mundane acts of cruelty like excluding a person from her usual hair salon because she has developed disability. Try to be kind, the person you see in your community who is struggling with a disability is still a person – they could be a mother or father, a son or daughter, a wife or husband, neighbour or friend. To ignore and exclude is to dehumanise them, which as we know from history and even today, leads to the worst of humanity’s actions.

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