OPINION: Eye-opening torrent of abuse

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

My three year old has swimming lessons at a pool that is run on an integrated basis. It is part of a centre where all activities are equally accessible to able-bodied and disabled participants. The idea is that if you swim or just sit in the poolside cafe sipping coffee side by side, what unites you becomes more important than what divides you in terms of physical mobility. Excellent theory, and one I passionately endorse.

From the pool balcony I had a fine view of Orla splashing away. Beyond, through the glass wall, I could also see the car park. I watched as one after another able-bodied car user rolled into the lot, saw that all the regular spaces were full, and so pulled up in the disabled bays. No matter that they were clearly marked. When it came to a choice between a three-minute walk from the overspill car park and their own convenience, these drivers opted without thought for the latter.

Down at reception, I enlisted the help of the staff and called the offenders back over the Tannoy. Some had the good grace to look embarrassed. "I don't normally do it, but today I was late", one said. Others had bizarre excuses. One woman explained that her mother had a disabled badge and had left it at home - but her mother wasn't even with her. To each I patiently explained the ethos of the centre they all use regularly. I pointed out that they had a choice. They can walk up the steps from the overspill car park, but a wheelchair user can't. If the disabled bays are full, then they simply have to go home.

Such logic convinced some, but caused others to launch into a torrent of abuse about people exploiting the disabled-badge system, exploiting their disability, even profiting from it. It was an eye-opener. All this, remember, from the lips of users of a centre that employs every constructive means to push its commitment to integration. For those of us in the third sector committed to promoting a more positive, informed attitude among the public to people with disabilities, it showed just how far we still have to go.

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