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Why We Need More Inclusive Days in Our Communities

What is so meaningful about businesses and communities having inclusive days?

What exactly is it about inclusive days that feel so different as a parent of a child with a disability? After attending two inclusive children’s events over the last year — the special needs family day at London Zoo and the autism-friendly showing of the Lion King — I started wondering what it was that made these days so meaningful.

The Lion King was a truly immersive experience with the surround-sound of audience members shouting, singing and expressing themselves in their own way during the show. People embraced the atmosphere and the tolerance within the auditorium made for a much more relaxed environment. The inclusive feel was highlighted by the cast members at the beginning telling us that we were welcome and they were strongly committed to making sure theatre was accessible for everyone. The mood was set, we knew we were accepted and not judged there. A very different attitude from some of the everyday reactions we can experience.

Similarly, London Zoo’s special children’s day has a lovely, open sense to it, not only the practical adaptations, such as accessible toilets and extra staff, but also the atmosphere created by others in attendance. These were often parent carers, sharing a commonality and understanding that doesn’t always exist when we are the only parent with a disabled child. I actively felt myself relax, take a deep breath and my hypervigilance moved down a notch. We were welcome, we were accepted, we were safe.

Disability in public makes us subject to the prejudices and assumptions of society as a whole. Judgement from others can be deeply hurtful when we’re not prepared for it. We are thrown into the role of disability advocate and very few of us have the tools, at the start, to know how to deal with this. There is a sense of “othering” and an associated stigma towards us. We are trying to navigate the world and protect the most precious thing in our lives from society’s often negative appraisal. Sartre talked about “the Look of the other” being objectifying as we suddenly become aware of others’ views of us and their sometimes shaming opinions. Over time, we develop skills to deal with this, a stoicism, or a practised response, but in the early days it can be tough.

I believe part of the problem in our current society is the expectation of perfection, exacerbated by forever-online social media. Things or people who are perceived as different can be scorned, rejected, ostracised. As parents of a child with a disability we are often expected to have all the answers to our child’s challenges. But we are not trained doctors, social workers and psychologists all rolled into one. You are in an extraordinary situation, why would you automatically know what to do? If an individual displays behaviour that is considered unacceptable by society, then sometimes parents end up vilified due to a lack of understanding. If there was greater acceptance of difference and disability in society at large, there would be less of a pressure on us as parent carers to be “perfect.” It would be OK for us to be “good enough.”

The special days make it clear that even small adaptations can make a big difference. Accepting that someone may go about doing something in a slightly different way or may take longer to process information, doesn’t take much effort from society. Through education and raising awareness we can help others realize that this doesn’t need to be a threat. Tolerance can be something they incorporate into their everyday world even in the busy stressed out environment in which we live. By meeting more disabled people others can connect with the similarities, the shared humanity. Ignorance and invisibility breeds unhelpful and inaccurate assumption. We need to be out, in public, connecting with our community. But we will only feel able to do this when society is accessible, inclusive and welcoming. It can feel like a Catch-22.

One answer is for there to be more inclusive days at various different settings, organizations and public spaces. This can help increase society’s acceptance of difference without judgement. It would make life easier for the many families of those with disabilities and hopefully over time would become the norm, rather than the need for these days to be “special.”

Getty image by nd3000