Last night I went out for a drink with a friend of mine who is a local Councillor here in Bury St Edmunds. He brought with him a publication he'd been sent that week by the Local Goverment Assocation (LGA) produced in concert with RADAR, the disability rights organisation.
The publication in question was a guide to how our Councillors should deal with disabled people. A kind of Debretts' for when you meet someone in a wheelchair. I didn't quite know how to respond to the publication.
It read a bit like the kind of guide you see when you're about to travel to a very obscure country, where certain things you might say or do be deemed highly offensive.
Do Councillors, for example, need to `not stare' and `appear positive and friendly' when faced with someone with a serious facial disfigurement? Or replace the words `moron' and `imbecile' in their vocabularies with `person with a learning difficulty'. Or see people who are mentally unwell as not suffering anything (however obviously they may be)but as experiencing `mental health challenges'.
While it is laudable that we let Councillors know about respectful conduct, I am not sure that publications like this are the answer. Half the people reading will, like I did, piss their sides at the clumsy, patronising earnestness of it. The other half will, in trying to take it all on board, extract any residual naturalness that may exist in future conversations they might have with disabled people.
Yes, where once there may have been quite normal, albeit clumsy, offense-risking exchanges like the ones I witness every two months at our Service User Parliament ("This poor young man in the wheelchair here" etc), there will now be a more stilted and somehow less human dialogue between elected members and people with disabilities who they represent.
For by taking the normal everyday `risk' out of interaction between disabled people and their Councillors, one is also eliminating something core to all human interaction. The net effect being, in weird, unintentional kind of way, to dehumanise disabled people.
Which I am sure wasn't the idea at all.