The Telegraph reported on 22 April 2017 that Oxford University’s Equality and Diversity Unit has advised students that “not speaking directly to people” could be deemed a “racial microaggression” which can lead to “mental ill-health”.
Other examples of “everyday racism” include asking someone where they are “originally” from, students were told.
Oxford University’s Equality and Diversity Unit explains in its Trinity term newsletter that “some people who do these things may be entirely well-meaning, and would be mortified to realise that they had caused offence.
Whilst I am uncomfortable about preventing people from interacting with different people from different backgrounds and being free to ask questions and learn about each other, this article does resonate with me.
I am a wheelchair user, woman and mixed race so I tick a lot of boxes. I also experience comments everyday about my wheelchair. Am I offended? Sometimes. Am I bored of it? Mostly yes. Is everyone malicious and would it constitute a disability hate crime? Never (well apart from one guy on the tube who was so drunk I don’t think he even knew what he was saying, does that count?!).
Am I being paranoid? Maybe sometimes as you are wary about strangers stopping you as 9 times out of 10 it is about the chair. How do I know? Well because I didn’t use a chair for 29 years of my life and when I did I was treated completely differently.
To give you a flavour of the kind of things I am talking about, here are the 10 of the most shocking/annoying things which people have said to me since using a wheelchair:
1.You’re quite good looking for someone in a wheelchair.
2. Ohh could we swap places? I’d love to be pushed around all day!
(Erm could I just push you in the nose. Hard!)
3. In a bar this varies from,
“oh women drivers, don’t drink and drive, don’t run me over, you’ll get a speeding ticket!”
(hilarious, heard it probably 1,000 times plus and counting. Yawn). No, I am not devoid of a sense of humour.. There are just so many times I can split my sides laughing.
4. That’s nice your friend is taking you out today.
Love, I think you’ll find I’m taking her out. She’s 13. (she was actually 26 but you get my point).
Just so they got the point I added, “I’m a lawyer, you know.” Yes, I actually said this. I’m still cringing, I was desperate.
5. You’re so brave. It’s amazing.
Yes, I know. I am having a sandwich in Pret. Where’s my f*cking OBE?
6. What happened to you?
I used to make stuff up. Stunt woman, gymnast and rock climber just led to more questions.
Now a simple, “I usually say hello first” gets the message!
7. Have you tried walking?
Oh my God, why didn’t my Consultant tell me that?!! Wait until I get my hands on those useless physiotherapists.
8. I would seriously kill myself if I had to be in a chair. I think you’re amazing.
I think you’re a BLEEP!
9. Do you work?
I think people assume I watch Jeremy Kyle all day.
10. Are you ok?
You cannot wait anywhere alone for too long on your own when out. I get asked this waiting for a friend, in a bus queue, in Tesco..
People mean well and are probably not used to seeing people in chairs alone going about their daily business.
Now the really hard thing about this stuff is that most of time people do not mean to cause offence at all. In fact, they are trying to communicate with you in an albeit clumsy and sometimes lazy way. Sometimes they just want to help. The wheelchair is so visible that it’s too easy to use as a conversation starter (or stopper).
Now I can’t expect everyone to understand this unless you use a wheelchair or have a visible identity (race, disability etc.) which prompts sometimes unwelcome comments from people.
Let me use an analogy which may make it clearer. Ladies, if you’ve been pregnant, how boring was it sometimes answering questions about the sex of the child, how many weeks are you? Blah blah. Now this is good and exciting news right? Now imagine you’re pregnant for the rest of your life (a hideous concept anyway but bear with me on this) and strangers will always ask these questions, touch your tummy and give you unwanted advice. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! They’re probably all well-meaning too.
This is what makes this stuff so hard. I don’t want people to be discouraged from asking questions and talking to me although there is a time and a place and there’s such a thing as rapport.
If you showed every scar, painful experience of your life – illness, bereavement a divorce as you walked out the house tomorrow and people made “jokes” about it, brought it up in conversation all the time, I am sure you would get tired of it.
I think the key is that we need to talk about this but stipulating to students how to interact seems unnatural and just creates more awkwardness. People need to have conversations about this as this can lead to empathy and understanding.
I am proud of myself today for having a useful and open dialogue with a lady who asked me in the queue in Costa after saying a brief hello, “so how come you ended up in the chair then?” Ended up? It sounds like death is knocking on the door (see, told you I sounded paranoid). I rolled my eyes and just said something about this being inappropriate and frankly quite boring. She realized what she had said straight away and it was a useful conversation. I explained that I get so many comments about the chair on a daily basis that it is tiring and if we had got to know each other better (preferably not in a busy café) then maybe I would have brought it up, if relevant. She got it and thanked me for explaining.
I’m not perfect though as the other day I did tell someone to “F*ck off”. See, I don’t get it right all the time either. In my defence, it was 7am, before my first cup of tea and he told me, “Jesus still loves you.” See, I’m still learning too…We are all human.