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When an Advertisement Treated My Disability as a Joke

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It is not easy to navigate London with a disability, as any disabled Londoner will tell you. Accessing most tube stations requires walking up and down stairs, passengers with prams and extra luggage often take up spaces reserved for wheelchair users, and there is an overall hurrying mentality that means anyone traveling slowly is met with groans, rolled eyes and sometimes even pushing and shoving. I am often made to feel like a nuisance just for leaving my home.

Recently, I was also made to feel like a joke.

While on my way to a hospital appointment, I noticed a poster imploring passengers on the tube to “Please give up your seat for those less able.” At first, I was encouraged, and then I read on:

“Please give up your seat for those less able. Like bad sleepers. You have to pity those poor souls who didn’t sleep well last night. But you don’t have to be like them. The Eve mattress is made with next-generation memory foam to provide the perfect bit of shut-eye. No lumbering around like the walking dead for Eve fans. No desperate search for a carriage with a seat. Just a more alert mind and body. Everybody deserves a perfect start to the day. Start by going to our website. Tap in START for your £50 off and your 100-night trial will begin within one day. Which is round about the same time your perpetual lethargy will end, coincidentally. Everybody deserves the perfect start.”

It’s hard to explain just how upsetting this was to read. I have myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. It can be very hard for me to get a seat on the tube sometimes, even though I need one, because I don’t look disabled. Until TFL rolls out their much anticipated “please offer me a seat” badges, when there isn’t a seat, I have to decide which person in the carriage looks least likely to argue with me about whether or not I’m disabled. This is a very real fear. On the basis of exactly no expertise whatsoever, many able-bodied people appoint themselves as arbiters of disability, confronting people like me when we use the elevator, park in a disabled space, or even ask them for a seat. Sometimes these confrontations can turn violent.

Society is largely oblivious to the everyday experiences of disabled people like me. The people at Eve Mattress certainly seem pretty oblivious. An able-bodied passenger’s search for a seat isn’t really desperate, but mine is. Sometimes that last seat is the only thing that will stop me from collapsing.
Here’s the thing: having a bad night’s sleep does not make you disabled. Needing a new mattress does not make you disabled. Being tired is nothing like living with CFS. I’m not just “tired:” I have chronic pain and chronic fatigue. My mobility is restricted; some days I can’t stand. I am often to be found “lumbering around like the walking dead,” but my “perpetual lethargy” will never end, coincidentally. One bad night’s sleep does not come close to a lifetime of fatigue, and it is offensive to suggest that it does.

Either Eve Mattress were deliberately intending to hurt and insult disabled people like me, or more likely, the thoughts and experiences and inner lives of people like me are something they never stop to consider. Both of these possibilities are ableist, but the latter is subtler, more insidious and deeply entrenched in how we think about what it means to be human. Far too often the disabled are left out in people’s thoughts, just as we are shut out in real life by doors we can’t open, stairs we can’t climb, or those who refuse to make room.

To the able-bodied, I say: I’m not an inspiring quote to put on a poster, or a sob story that makes you feel better about your life, I’m a person. I don’t want your “pity,” and I certainly don’t want you to laugh at me or at people like me. I want you to treat me with the dignity and respect you expect to be met with yourself; I want you to change the way you think about disability, and listen to disabled people when we tell you that you’re wrong. I want you to be outraged at the prejudice and the scorn we live with every single day. And, yes, sometimes, I want you to let me have your seat.

A complaint about this advert has already been made to the Advertising Standards Authority. If you want to complain, I suggest you contact Eve Mattress, or call them out on social media.

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Originally published: March 13, 2017
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