It should be almost second nature for abled people in the U.K. There are signs and adverts; we know some spaces are meant for those of different ability levels. This could apply to any form of accessibility. I’ve had to fight for them all, only to have an able person demand they get it too.
I’ve kindly asked people to move their bags off a disabled seat on a bus so I could please sit, just for the man to pretend he couldn’t hear me and then give the space to a pretty girl in a few stops. I had my crutch that day; I was obviously struggling. I can’t imagine how much ruder he would have been if I had not had any visible sign I was disabled. I’ve had to have bus drivers move buggies and prams, and tried to politely explain that space on buses is not for prams, they just fit there too. It’s for wheelchairs. The woman (who still had space for her tiny pram) glared at me the entire ride. I’ve been on trains in my chair, only to find the wheelchair space taken up by a bike. The man who had the bike smiled at me and said hello, apparently having no idea I might actually need this space more than his bike.
When I was a child I remember getting into an argument with a girl and my teacher. She wanted to know why I was allowed to type in class rather than write in pencil. I explained I was dyspraxic and dyslexic, that I needed these things. She cried it wasn’t fair. That’s what it came down too for all of these situations. “It’s not fair.” So I wanted to calmly explain here, once and for all, that you are right. It’s not fair.
It’s not fair that I was healthy physically until I was 19. I could run, I regularly took a three mile trip around town on foot and rarely used public transport. Now I use a crutch on a good day and a wheelchair on a bad day, which is most days. It’s not fair that the standard hospital crutches the hospital give people blisters; they aren’t made for long-term use. It’s not fair so many of the people I love have faced adversity in education, having to fight for the accommodations they need in exams for things like ADHD and dyslexia. It’s not fair that to get a diagnosis to get this help it can cost £800 if you get it cheap. Yet where I live there is free health care. It’s not fair that after finally getting this help, lots of schools and universities changed how it works, making it harder.
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It’s not fair that so many disabled people go without the basic things they need. Look at the ground as you enter a shop and think, if you were in a wheelchair, if you were alone and relied on wheels and your arm strength, could you get in there? Is there a big step? A super steep ramp? Look at cash registers. Could you reach that from a seated position? Look at the normal aspects of your day, and think could you manage this in a chair? With reduced mobility? With people letting their children run into you no matter how much pain it causes you, because they are too busy looking away, pretending you don’t exist?
What about getting to a toilet, when you go can you see a clear disabled option? Is it advertised at all? Beyond that, can the stall even fit a big wheelchair? I know so many people who have electric wheelchairs which would never fit in half the local disabled toilets. I’ve been in disabled lifts my small wheelchair struggles to fit in, let alone a larger one or someone who needs a carer with them. Beyond that, there are almost no public toilets that can accommodate people who need adult changing tables. Even if they have a changing space, it’s normally small with no hoists to help someone. People rely on being changed on the dirty floor. Could you face that, for you or a loved one?
If going about your day you are able to notice these potential struggles, can you think about how it would make them feel? How would you feel after a day facing all of this, not just one isolated thing. Think about the toll this takes and then the relief of something that actually helps. Something that’s built for us, made for us, tailored to our needs. Now imagine that someone who doesn’t even need it is taking it away from you. When you can think about all of this, only then can we talk about fair.
No, life isn’t fair, it’s a struggle and so many people, both abled and disabled are fighting for the things we need to engage in society as everyone else does. It can be hard to understand the sheer range of physical and mental needs that exist out there, but when you approach the topic with kindness and understanding, it gets to be a whole lot easier. If you have taken one of these spaces and someone who needs it comes along, say sorry and make sure they get the space that was made for them. You can find another. They can’t. Say hi to them; it’s OK to talk to them just as you would anyone else. Being empathetic instead of egocentric can change the entire situation; it can also change a person’s day or even week.
It’s not fair yet. But one day I believe it will be, and understanding will get us there. And when in doubt, just remember, in most of these situations there are lovely blue signs saying “priority by law.” Those should help you work out what you should do.