‘Sorry mate, you shouldn’t be driving that car with legs like yours. I’m phoning the police.’
I have cerebral palsy, and clearly this stranger took it to mean I was incapable of operating my vehicle.
He had come up to me while I was getting cash out at an ATM to pay for a takeaway. It was around seven o’clock in the evening and it was pretty dark, which made the whole situation more terrifying.
Anything could happen. He tried to get my keys out of my hand but I used my strongest arm to pull away from his on-coming grasp.
I tried to tell him to go away and leave me alone, but he was very persistent, and I could feel both a combination of fear and adrenaline rush through my body. He most definitely wasn’t taking my keys: I was ready for the fight.
He kept on mentioning my legs and suggesting that I wasn’t fit to drive, but I am. If I wasn’t, they wouldn’t have put me through my driving test and given me an automatic car driving license.
I passed my driving test when I was 21. My car is also adapted so I can drive. The strongest side of my body is my left side so I have a left foot accelerator pedal and I also have a steering wheel ball and control pad, which I use to operate my indicators, lights, screen wipers and even my horn if I need to.
Even though I was left physically unhurt, to know that people still think that disabled people shouldn’t be driving knocks my confidence and my pride, and I was upset to have been in this situation in the first place.
The fact that, in this day and age, people still have the opinion that disabled people aren’t capable of leading independent lives is terrible. Clearly, there’s still a long way to go in terms of educating society about disability awareness and we need to focus on the things disabled people can do, as opposed to the things they can’t.
Despite having cerebral palsy and a speech impediment, I am a very independent person. I handle all my own business, except where I need to make phone calls, which my mother helps me with. With most things moving to online, such as banking and shopping, the day-to-day is becoming much easier for me.
Yet I still regularly battle with strangers stopping me in the street and asking: ‘Excuse me, where’s your carer?’.
Their reaction when I reply that I don’t have one is usually a mixture of amazement and disgust. It feels like they are on a power trip and seeing somebody who is different getting on with their own life independently feels worrying to them. But there is no need.
Having disabilities means I sometimes do things in a different way and alter things to feel more comfortable. Things such as doing a shirt up.
The buttons are so small, and with only having full use of my left side, doing them up is difficult so I don’t wear shirts out too often.
My hands aren’t the steadiest, so drinking out of mugs and glasses is difficult. Instead, I either use a straw or at home, I use a non-spill mobility beaker.
You learn and adapt when doing the everyday stuff in a way that’s easiest. I may take longer doing tasks than other people do, but I get there in the end. If I needed a carer, I would ask or pay for one, but I’m happy to live independently and do things on my own.
I understand that, on some occasions, these members of the public are well-meaning. But I am a grown man with feelings, a soul, and I like to keep my head held high. While some people are genuinely kind, I’m not a child, and when they ask where my carer is it feels as though they are assuming that I have learning or social disabilities, which I don’t.
There have been times where people have been forceful to the point where they have actively manhandled me without asking me if I need assistance.
If I need help to cross a road, I’ll ask. There is no need to grab me by the arm and power walk me across a zebra crossing. I am – on most occasions – perfectly capable of crossing a road by myself. It feels really embarrassing when things like this happen and people take it upon themselves to assist me.
Each disability is different, and mine is a physical one. It has taken me a while to get to this point in my life, where I now embrace my disabilities.
Having cerebral palsy does hold me back a little but I have now realised that getting on with everyday life at a slower pace is better than not being able to be as independent as I am – and independence means everything to me.
I would have hoped that attitudes around disability had changed and more people would know that it is not acceptable to accost someone and assume you know better than they do about how they should be living their life.
The world we live in is getting savvier – medicine and science is getting more advanced, technology has come on leaps and bounds – and all this helps disabled people live much better and longer lives.
For example, I now have a communication aid app on my phone because of my severe speech impediment. So, if a shop assistant can’t understand what I’m asking or trying to say to them, I’ll use my app to communicate.
While this is an amazing tool to have access to, unfortunately, the reactions from shop assistants I have used this with have been very mixed. Some are very impressed by the fact that I have one, others are pretty dismissive of it. I often feel as though they expect everyone to communicate in the same manner, and get the impression that they want to get rid of me as quickly as they can because they can’t understand what I am saying.
It really knocks my confidence when this happens, and makes me feel like they think I have no right to be an independent person because I don’t fit into their stereotype of what people should be like. It’s heartbreaking, and these attitudes need to change.
I want to ask people to remember that, in most instances, asking a disabled person where their carer is rude and derogatory. It implies that I am a hazard to society and should be cared for. It makes me so angry that people still see disabled people as second class citizens and, sometimes, as a burden to society.
I’m so passionate about advocating for more representation for people with disabilities everywhere because I believe it’s our talent that should matter, and not our disabilities. We are capable of great things, and I want people to remember that.
It’s time for us to be kind, embrace, and celebrate the fact disabled people are making a valuable difference to society.
To the public, my message is this: If you see a disabled person in the street going about their business and are perfectly comfortable in what they are doing, let them get on with whatever they’re doing. Be happy for them.
And alternatively, if we ever need help – we’ll ask. You don’t need to ask for us.
You can read Gavin’s blog here: www.gavincliftonwriter.com/blog
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