Is Disability a Universal Language?

Travelling has to be one of the greatest passions of my life, alongside chocolate and the beach.

I love observing all the different sights, sounds, smells, textures and flavours of the world, along with all the interesting people and cultures that come with it! As a person who has been involved in the disability sector for some time, I take great interest in observing how attitudes and approaches to disability differ between countries around the world.

The people who were assisting me did not have any training in disability at all.

This past year, I spent the months of winter in the UK, dodging the cold and completing a work placement at Durham University. Though its physical accessibility can be shocking, I was often pleasantly surprised with how the people were quite proactive when it comes to disability and were often aware of how to assist me as a person with a vision impairment. At my place of work, my manager offered and organised for tactile paving to be placed through the building without me having asked, it was just a thing that possibly needed to be done and they did it. One of the university’s colleges, for which I was also doing some work, seemed constantly worried that they weren’t doing enough for access and inclusion and kept asking me for input. Honestly, though, I had to struggle to come up with things they had not already done or thought about. Furthermore, more often than not, people would offer me an elbow if guiding me, or read printed information out for me without me having to ask or point out the fact that I’m holding a cane because I’m blind. However, upon asking on several occasions, it turned out that most of the time, the people who were assisting me did not have any training in disability at all. This made me think – it seems that common sense itself can go a long way.

Then in early October, I departed again to spend a month volunteering in, what turned out to be, not so sunny Fiji.

In the village it was a completely different culture and way of living, and being in the countryside, you can say goodbye to just about all accessibility. Even in the capital city, I could count on one hand the stretches of pavement that wouldn’t prove to be a rollercoaster ride for anyone using a wheelchair.

Though I would not hesitate in awarding the Fijians 11/10 for friendliness, I would have to say their awareness of disability would have to be less than a 1/10. It seemed that they had quite traditional views about disability, which meant that they were very or overly helpful – nice but can also be somewhat awkward.

It is interesting to note though, that even though Japan seemed to have just about all the accessibility features in place, they still seemed to hold the belief that people with disabilities should be spoon-fed, rather than having the independent-living approach we generally adopt here and in the UK. I am interested to see how the attitudes towards disability in Fiji change as the country develops further.