Why are people so awkward around disability?

The proportion of the UK population who live with a disability, whether that is a learning disability, a mental health condition, or a physical disability (visible or invisible) is larger than most may assume. In fact, figures suggest that as many as one in five of the UK population is disabled. Given this statistic it seems surprising that more than 40% of the population say they do not know anyone with a disability. It is perhaps in part due to this that there seems to be a general lack of understanding and education among the general public about disability and disability etiquette. Though the last two decades have seen a lot of legislative change to improve the rights and protections of disabled people, a change in legislature does not automatically produce a change in attitudes.

‘Attitudes’ are a collection of beliefs, feelings, values and dispositions that determine how we respond to people and situations. They are the product of life experiences, including relationships that we build with those around us. If we are not exposed to certain types of people and situations, it is only natural that we will not be entirely sure how to respond to them. It is normal to be intrigued, unsure or awkward around things that are not familiar to us. Awkwardness is unavoidable if unfamiliarity is present.

According to the disability charity Scope, the results of a two year studied carried out by themselves showed that around 67% of people in the UK admit to feeling uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. Many said that they have actively avoided talking to a disabled person, not out of malice, but because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they would rather say nothing at all. This general lack of understanding and exposure means that many people have difficulty seeing disabled people as “normal” says Scope. This, unsurprisingly, leads to awkward situations where people don’t know what to say or do.

Alex Brooker, TV presenter and ambassador for Scope has stated that he doesn’t “think that people are awkward because they don’t care or because they’re ignorant – it’s completely the opposite. People can become quite awkward because they do care and they don’t want to make someone feel concious about themselves. And that creates awkwardness.” Taking this into account it thus makes sense that most of the awkwardness surrounding disability comes from people overthinking the situation. People are worried that they are going to say or do something accidentally offensive or patronising and so don’t know what to say at all. Of course, this worry and obsessing over what to say and not to say ends up with said worrier putting their foot in it so to speak. The fear of doing the wrong thing inevitably makes you do it. This then has a knock-on effect. You get embarrassed, they get embarrassed, and before you know it everyone is inwardly cringing and awkwardly shuffling their feet not knowing what to do next.

If our actions are informed by our attitudes, and our attitudes by our lived experiences, then it is not surprising that, with a population that openly admits most of us do not know, or have no exposure to disability, most people have no idea how to respond to it. This combination of lack of exposure and education and a gut wrenching fear of getting it wrong is a perfect storm for creating those maddeningly awkward moments. This is why Scope started it’s “End the Awkward” campaign. It attempts to address the situation with brutal honesty and comedy. The solution, they remind us, is simple. It all boils down to not panicking.