The institutionalisation of disabled people was a fairly common practice up until the mid-to-late 20th century, and in some cases still persists to this day, albeit in a much more transparent and formally regulated environment. Having someone in the family living in an institution was regarded as shameful, and to maintain social status people would keep it a secret or outright lie about the fate of their kin. As civil rights movements gained traction and made progress, the practice became less common. However, despite the lessening use of institutions, segregation has continued.
Specialised schools, residential homes, care homes, and even things like car parking spaces or viewing platforms at concerts are a form of segregation that proves useful to many disabled people, but oftentimes segregation goes beyond the bounds of keeping us safe, and starts keeping us away.
I remember going to see a play put on by the theatrical society at my university, only to be told that I couldn’t sit in the audience due to health and safety concerns. I was to go to the sound area on a balcony at the back of the room, which had a barrier I couldn’t see over, and cables everywhere which hardly seemed safe to me. Bear in mind that I had attended this particular theatre several times before without a problem. After some argument I was granted the luxury of sitting with everyone else, and I got the distinct impression that I wasn’t grateful enough for their tastes.
One of the locations my local wrestling company used, before moving on to better venues, had steps down from the corridor into the main room. Wheelchair users had to sit in the corridor, unable to interact with those in the ring, jostled by people moving past as it was also the main entrance and exit to the room. All it would have taken was for the venue to put in a ramp, and the segregation would not have existed.
More recently during the pandemic, I’ve had several people tell me I really shouldn’t be out and about, despite my wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing to the best of my ability. Of course, they haven’t offered to collect my prescriptions, or explain to my boss why I wasn’t coming into the office despite my job being impossible from home.
Even before the pandemic, if I was out of an evening or week-end I was told I should come out at off-peak times instead so I wasn’t in the way, the assumption being I was free then because I didn’t have a job. Yet, according to others I shouldn’t be attending certain things like gigs or wrestling shows; they’re not suitable for disabled people for some reason that is never explained. I’ve even had comments when out during the day on annual leave that I was a lazy scrounger for not having the very job I was on holiday from.
If I were to take all of the comments I have received as instructions, I would never leave the home, and therein we have the problem; institutionalisation is not a relic of the past. Instead of putting us altogether in one big building, we’re simply expected to stay out of the way in our homes. The building is different, but the stigma and segregation are the same. We are to be kept separate, and as a result we get sympathy from people who cannot help but view us as being completely unlike them, when what we really need is empathy from people who are not so different from us as they believe.