What kind of society are we and do we aspire to be? Big questions, particularly if you’re reading this at breakfast time.
In the current climate, we could all be forgiven for keeping our heads down and just getting on with getting on.
But actually, this is exactly the time when we should be encouraged to engage in some long, hard thinking about our culture and values.
In times of relative scarcity of resources, we can all be guilty of allowing our innate selfishness to triumph, particularly if encouraged by a government – yes I mean you, Tory-led UK Government – to do so.
So what has prompted my bout of existential angst? Young Epilepsy, a charity which supports young people with epilepsy and their families, found that many children with the condition are not invited to friends’ birthday parties.
The charity – rather charitably I thought – reckoned this was because adults didn’t know what to do to help a child having a seizure.
Yet, I know from friends that the exclusion of their disabled child from such social activities is very common. Sleepovers, parties, even visits to each others’ houses just don’t happen.
This is backed up by research, recently compiled in a report for the Children’s Commissioner. Children with disabilities often have few friends, rely hugely on their parents and often don’t get to do age-appropriate things.
At nine, they should be playing with pals at the park; at 13, hingin’ oot with chums doing “nuffink”; at 16 – well most of us don’t like to think too closely what they get up to. All of these are normal, everyday social activities for children, which sadly, are often missing from disabled children’s lives.
Some of their isolation is down to barriers and obstacles in our society – lack of physical access to public buildings and often, lack of money too as many families struggle on finite incomes.
But the main barrier is attitudinal. With small adjustments, often just thinking differently, many youth clubs and activities could include disabled children, as could schools, which often do well on the curriculum, but poorly on the add-ons which are such a vital part of school life – play, music tuition, school trips, even lunch.
Indeed, some children struggle to get to school at all. Adam Bojelian, an award winning poet and recipient of a Young Scot award, might have complex disabilities and health support needs but he is also hugely intelligent.
With the right supports in place, Adam can and does do very well at school. But he needs to have a nurse to go with him and the health board often cannot provide a suitably trained one. Consequently, Adam regularly misses out on school. Read his work here
His is an extreme example but not the only one. School transport arrangements often mean disabled children start later and finish earlier than other children; a lack of personal care provision means parents having to respond to calls to come and change their children because they have soiled themselves – yes, in 21st century Scotland, we allow children of all ages to soil themselves because we cannot provide the care they need to help with toileting; and informal exclusions – where children with behavioural issues are given time out in special units or advised not to come back to school for a few days after an incident – are frequent.
What kind of society are we when we allow such prejudice – for that is what it is – to flourish unchecked?
Worse, it can be compounded by bullying and intimidation. Hate crime – at all ages, and all levels – against disabled people exists and is on the increase.
Children are targeted with name-calling, exclusionary behaviour, physical jostling and other low-level harassment day in, day out by other children. Yet children aren’t born with these attitudes nor do they learn it for themselves.
None of this is new: when I began working in the voluntary sector for a disability organisation, these were the sorts of issues that loomed large in disabled people and their families’ lives. Twelve years ago. Little has changed and in fact, it all seems to be getting worse.
Intolerance of difference is growing: we now appear to place little value on protecting our most vulnerable and in ensuring they are treated fairly. Disabled people are regularly referred to as scroungers: we are encouraged to view them as a drag and a cost to society – when financial times are hard – without pausing to think of the contribution they make to the richness and diversity of our society and communities.
Too often, we behave as the silent majority, refusing to take a stand for fear of consequences, going along with the unfairness, inequality and injustice of it all, because it makes for an easier life and ensures there’s more for us and ours. Which speaks volumes about our society and the society we aspire to be.