Disabled campaigners have asked why the government is spending money on a “potentially damaging” and “completely misguided” awareness-raising campaign that aims to stop non-disabled people making “assumptions” about people’s impairments.
One of the disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) that were backing the project has already told Disability News Service (DNS) that it is now asking the government to rethink its Ask Don’t Assume campaign.
The minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove, has so far failed to respond to the wave of anger and frustration about Ask Don’t Assume, which encourages strangers to approach disabled people and ask them personal questions about their impairments and “what they are capable of”.
Among those expressing concern was disabled journalist and author Lucy Webster, who called it “completely misguided” and warned on Twitter that it risked “opening the ableism floodgates”.
The campaign website, which has only sketchy, confusing details of what it hopes to achieve, claims Ask Don’t Assume was “developed in partnership with disabled people” and is based on “their individual experiences, extensive research and work with disability stakeholders”.
The government’s Disability Unit yesterday (Wednesday) repeatedly refused to respond to the criticism, pointing only to background notes about the campaign.
In that background information, it said the campaign wants non-disabled people to ask disabled people what their access needs are, and not what their impairment is, and that they should not make assumptions and should instead support disabled people in the way they have requested.
But the public response to the campaign from disabled people has been overwhelmingly negative.
Sarah O’Brien, author of So, I’m Autistic, a guide for young autistic people, told DNS that the campaign “encourages invasive questioning and curiosity that creates the expectation that people’s impairments and needs should be public rather than personal”.
She said: “Some people are happy in the right moment to take the time to educate others, but that choice is taken away from the disabled person by this campaign which encourages people to be put on the spot.”
She also warned that it could have an even more troubling impact on disabled people with intersectional identities, who “may face additional harassment because of not wanting to answer questions”.
Vera Kubenz, a disabled academic, said it was “not disabled people’s responsibility to constantly educate strangers”.
She said: “Because I am researching disabled people’s encounters with strangers, I am really concerned that the government campaign will encourage intrusive questions, which are a really common experience for many disabled people, alongside staring.
“These questions are just as harmful and exhausting as more outright hostility because they are so frequent and turn disabled people into public property, rather than letting us just go about our day like everyone else.”
The government claims the campaign was “developed in partnership with disabled people”, but DNS has heard from Autistic Nottingham, one of the DPOs whose logo appears on the website.
Claire Whyte, chief executive of Autistic Nottingham, said the campaign’s “lack of message clarity” was “extremely disappointing”.
She said: “We initially saw the government’s scheme as positive and understood it was trying to bring to light the issues faced by those with physical disabilities having assumptions pushed upon them, such as wheelchair users being pushed/manoeuvred without their consent.
“However, due to the campaign’s lack of message clarity, it could be seen to promote asking disabled people intrusive and inappropriate questions.
“This is extremely disappointing, as we were hoping the campaign would promote a more open discourse to reduce those incidents from occurring.
“As an Autistic-led organisation, where most of our staff are Autistic, a campaign that allows issues to be taken out of context is not helpful and we believe that the government should look again at the content.”
Disabled author Penny Batchelor, co-founder of the Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses Literary Prize, said: “There’s a huge difference between asking someone if they need help, such as opening a door, and thinking that it’s acceptable to ask personal medical questions.”
She listed on Twitter some of the “insulting and distressing” things she has been asked by strangers, such as “What’s wrong with you?” and “How do you have sex?”.
She told DNS that the government “doesn’t seem to have a clue”, ignoring practical advice such as the need to bring in personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled people living in high-rise buildings while “spending money on this potentially damaging campaign”.
She said: “It’s tinkering round the edges whilst Rome burns – not addressing the real issues such as extensive NHS waiting lists, inaccessible housing, rising disability hate crime, disability poverty, the care crisis and a disability benefit system that assumes you’re a faking scrounger until proven otherwise.”
Kubenz said the campaign failed to consider “where the harmful assumptions come from”.
She said: “We have had over a decade of anti-austerity politics where mainstream media frequently claimed that many disabled people were scroungers and ‘trying it on’.
“My research focuses on blue badge spaces, which were largely exempt from cuts, but still many of my participants faced these assumptions.
“These ideas stick to disabled people and harm them in all situations, and this continues to be perpetuated by the government who are now gearing up for yet another round of benefit cuts.”
Disabled activist Jess Plant said the campaign “encourages the public to ask intrusive questions of disabled people who are just going about their day to day lives”, such as why they are using the accessible toilet.
She said: “I for one, as a disabled person, don’t want to share my personal medical information as I am doing the shopping.”
But she said the campaign also deflects “from what the government could and needs to be doing to address its own policies and inactions that make disabled people’s lives more difficult”, such as on social care, its plans to close rail ticket offices, and consultations on benefit reforms.
Picture: One of the images from the campaign
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