There are numerous difficulties faced by disabled people, who are just not seen as quite disabled enough within society. This can include the lack of access to disability benefits to being challenged when accessing disabled spaces, such as disabled parking bays. My recent paper Pritchard (2020) explores the numerous challenges people with dwarfism encounter when trying to access disabled spaces. For example, members of staff will often challenge people with dwarfism when they try to access a low counter. We are not wheelchair users, so we are expected to struggle using a counter which comes up to our nose. This I argue is because people with dwarfism do not match the stereotypical representation of a disabled person. Less than 10% of disabled people use a wheelchair, yet, about 99% of disability images feature a wheelchair user or just an empty wheelchair. This symbol has become synonymous with disability and provides a lazy and inaccurate stereotype that is used to judge others by.
When the coalition government brought out its benefit reforms, with the aim to continue Thatcher’s dismantling of the welfare state (Stewart, 2019) they claimed they only wanted to help the ‘most in need’, in other words as few disabled people as possible without looking completely heartless. This would mean that disabled people would receive fewer resources, which would supposedly save money. This is nothing new, even disabled spaces, which foster the belief that the UK is an all inclusive country, actually only provide access for a narrow range of disabled people. For example, Kitchin and Law (2001) point out that disabled toilets do not adequately provide access for all disabled people. The Equality Act (2010) only provides disabled accommodations where ‘reasonable’, in other words where they are not too costly. Now with the current pandemic social distancing procedures are once again impacting those disabled people who just are not disabled enough, or in other words if accounted for would cost the country too much.
Dwarfism is often contested as a disability. We are just seen as small. However, as a person with dwarfism I encounter numerous physical and social barriers when doing something as mundane as shopping. With social distancing this has brought about many challenges, but also some benefits. The main difficulty is that as a person with dwarfism I have to navigate through spaces which are constructed for the average sized person. Perhaps the most obvious barrier when shopping is not being able to reach items on high shelves. However, other barriers include not being able to use a trolley or being able to pack items, as the checkout is too high. Usually I am able to find a member of staff to help when I need something off a high shelf, but with social distancing I cannot do that. I am also expected to shop alone, so I cannot go shopping with someone who would be able to help me. So I am left in limbo. I go shopping when I can but usually only return with half of the items needed.
The alternative is to do online shopping, however, it is very difficult to book a slot. Only those considered vulnerable, such as older people with respiratory illnesses, are able to get priority online shopping, but I am not considered vulnerable. Again, access is only being provided for a small minority. Whilst I do not begrudge those who are vulnerable getting support, others whose disabling experiences add more complications to social distancing are not getting the support they need. However, I have noticed some perks to social distancing. The main one being is that less people are out shopping which means as a person with dwarfism I get less abuse. Shakespeare et al. (2010) found in their report on the social and medical experiences of people with dwarfism, that 98% of participants had been stared at, 77% had been targets of verbal abuse, so it is no wonder that 63 % felt unsafe when out. This unwanted attention is more likely to occur within crowded spaces, including supermarkets. However, at the moment supermarkets are less crowded and most of the time it is just adults shopping
The other benefit of social distancing is that I am given more room when queuing. Whilst everyone has probably experienced someone getting too close to them whilst in a queue, this again is a common occurrence for people with dwarfism but can also be quite intimidating, especially when most people are a foot or two taller than you. Many people take advantage of my short stature and believe that reaching over my head is perfectly acceptable. However, now that there are strict rules about social distancing this experience is not as common.
We need a more encompassing recognition of disability to truly provide disability equality. The implications that social distancing is having on disabled people being able to carry out daily tasks, need more recognition and accommodations. At the moment disability equality is a fallacy, supported by disability stereotypes. Whilst social distancing has its downsides, it also has its benefits which I would like to hope will remain after the government reduces lockdown. However, unless these also benefit non-disabled people I can’t see them remaining.
Kitchin, R. and Law, R. (2001) The Socio-Spatial Construction of (In) accessible Public Toilets. Urban Studies, 38 (2) 287-298.
Pritchard, E. (2020) Incongruous encounters: the problem of accessing accessible spaces for people with dwarfism. Disability and Society.
Shakespeare, T., Thompson, S. and Wright, M. (2010) No Laughing Matter: Medical and Social Experiences of Restricted Growth. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 12 (1) 19-31.
Stewart, M. (2019) The Impact of Neoliberal Politics on the Welfare and Survival of Chronically Ill and Disabled People from, In Berghs, M., Chataika, T., El-Lahib, Y. and Dube, K. (Eds) The Routledge Handbook of Disability Activism. Abingdon: Routledge. Pp. 41-56
Dr Erin Pritchard is a Lecturer in Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University. She is also a core member of the Centre for Cultural Disability Studies. Her work focuses on the social and spatial experiences of people with dwarfism. Most recently she co-edited a special issue on representations of dwarfism for the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. She has also written for the Independent and Times Higher.