The hottest news in Devon this week has been Totnes MP Anthony Steen parking his car in a space reserved for disabled drivers at Newton Abbot railway station. He might have got away with a fixed penalty if a Liberal Democrat MP had not recognised the car and an opportunity to make mischief, and called in the press. Mr Steen then dug himself into a deep pit by trying to justify his actions, claiming that there are too many reserved spaces for 'handicapped' people, a comment he repeated on local radio.
'Handicapped' is certainly not a PC word today and, thankfully, it is not an appropriate one to use for the majority of people living with disabilities. With greater public awareness and understanding, better access to transport and buildings and a range of modern technical aids, it is possible for many people with disabilities to travel, work and enjoy a full social life. Things may not be perfect but they have certainly improved and Mr Steen does himself no favours in displaying his ignorance and his prejudice. The Conservative party has been quick to disassociate itself from his remarks.
So what is the difference between a disability and a handicap and does the terminology matter? To the outsider it may appear to be a trivial matter of semantics but it is, in fact, a heavily loaded subject. It has to do with self-image and public perception; expectations and rights. People with disabilities have had as hard a struggle for equality as have ethnic minorities and homosexuals. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) is still in its infancy, with many employers and public institutions moving very slowly towards its implementation and the rights of deaf people were only offically recognised in 2003, with the legal acceptance of British Sign Language.
One of the most famous people with a disability is Dame Tanni Grey Thompson, who has won many medals as an athlete and has proved herself as a charming, intelligent and witty television presenter; her abilities are outstanding but she is a wheelchair user and, as such, would be 'handicapped' if she needed to get to the second floor of a building with no lift. The handicap element of most physical disabilities could be removed or reduced by careful planning.
On the other hand, there are some disabilities which are handicapping by their very nature: these are disabilities which prevent or restrict communication. I am most familiar with deafness, but I would include autism and some mental disorders. Deafness affects the person who is deaf and also the person trying to communicate with him. (I'm not referring here to great-uncle Jim, who shouts a lot, misunderstands what you say and drowns out your music with the screeching feedback from his hearing aid - that is tedious but can be dealt with.) I mean those who are Deaf with a capital D, the born deaf, who may have little or no speech or whose speech is difficult to understand. I have sometimes intervened in situations where a Deaf person has been trying to find information in a shop, railway station or airport and in every case it has been the hearing person who has appeared to be the most handicapped, terrified by their inability to communicate.
With the wonders of modern medicine, the number of babies with disabilities is increasing. That seems to be a paradox but it is a fact; very premature babies and some with conditions that previously would have had a high mortality rate are surviving, many of them with long-term complex disabilities. Social and education policies favour full inclusion for all people, so 'handicap' has to be concept of the past, replaced by a positive attitude towards living with disability. I'm not sure how we accommodate Mr Steen's inability to get to the station in time to find a parking space, perhaps by voting for someone else at the next election?