25 things you might not know about disability

By Drew Miller Hyndman
BBC Ouch

Published
image copyrightBBC/Katie Horwich

Do you know your inspiration porn from your service dogs? Why are businesses missing out on billions of pounds? And how can you read the epic novel War and Peace in less than half the time?

It has been 25 years since disability rights were enshrined in law under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). It defined what disability was and set out what disabled people could expect so they didn't face barriers.

To mark the occasion, here are 25 things you might not know about disability.

1. What is disability exactly?

Good first question. You are considered disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect - beyond 12 months - on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

2. The blues

The Blue Badge enables disabled drivers or passengers to park as close to their destination as possible, but it hasn't always been blue. In fact, between 1970 and 2000 it was actually orange. Then the European Union introduced a standardised blue badge. It allows users to park in a variety of places for free, including on some double yellow lines, but the rules vary between areas so it's always best to check. Some rumours tell us it was yellow before it was orange, even.

3. The businesses missing billions

Do you like to splash the cash? Just think how keen businesses would be to attract you through their front door if you had billions to spend. The Purple Pound is the spending power of disabled households, that's any household where at least one member is disabled. In the UK it's worth an estimated £274bn annually! According to Purple, business misses out on £2bn every month if disabled people cannot access their shop or service.

4. The secret button at pedestrian crossings

You're probably familiar with the bumpy paving slabs and loud beeps at the roadside to help visually impaired people use them. But do you know about the secret electronic gizmo there too? Located under the box with the button on it is a protruding cone which rotates when the lights show you can walk. Put your hand on it and wait for it to start going round and round then start to cross if it feels clear. These are particularly helpful when crossings are close together and you might not easily know which one is making the noise. The cone provides confidence that it is safe to cross the road you're in front of but you should always use your judgement.

5. It is NOT a miracle

Either out and about or online you may have seen a wheelchair user get up to reach something or walk. This isn't the grace of god or a benefit scam, because many wheelchair users are ambulatory, meaning they are able to stand and walk on their own. The reasons for them using wheelchairs can vary from having pain or discomfort when walking long distances, to chronic fatigue meaning walking could wipe you out significantly afterwards.

image copyrightBBC/Katie Horwich

6. The Disability Price Tag

"It's not about the money, money, money" sang Jessie J in that famous 2011 song, but being disabled certainly does seem to be quite a lot about money. According to Scope, in 2019 the average 'Disability Price Tag', or, the extra cost of living that disabled people have , was £583 a month - that's on top of food and housing. That works out as more than half an average rent extra. It's often spent on much-needed services such as physiotherapy, or having to pay more for products that are accessible.

7. The keepers of the key

Some disabled people have access to more than 10,000 secret doors thanks to RADAR keys. These doors lead to accessible toilets, as opposed to other worlds, but they're just as important. The keys ensure toilets are protected from damage and misuse whilst still allowing access to those who need it. Keys are issued by charities and local authorities. The name comes from the old charity, Radar, which merged into Disability Rights UK.

8. Fidget spinners

Do you remember those triangular-shaped spinning devices that you hold in the middle? These aren't just distracting gimmicks driving teachers and parents mad, they also help some disabled people stay calm and focussed. The origins of the fidget spinner date back to the 1990's when they were created to help children with ADHD and anxiety. There's a whole range of similar devices out there to suit people's needs.

9. Cutting out the noise

You've probably seen the blue sign with a white ear on it while you've been out and about, but do you know what it means? For hearing aid users it means there is a hearing loop in place which is good for eliminating background noise like in shops when you're trying to talk to the cashier. It uses a wireless signal to broadcast audio from a microphone near the person speaking directly into someone's hearing aid. All a hearing aid user has to do is flick the 'T switch' on their hearing aid to tune into the loop. It's a bit like flicking between your cable HDMI input and your DVD HDMI input.

10. Home is where the heart (and adaptations) is

Home is supposed to be the place we feel most comfortable. However, many older buildings were not built with accessibility in mind - think about how many have steps up to the front door! This leaves the onus on disabled people to adapt their homes. Councils will provide a free assessment and pay for any adaptations under £1,000 such as ramps or rails and there are also grants available to help with more costly adaptations such as wet rooms instead of showers or lower countertops in the kitchen.

11. Access denied

We live more of our lives online than ever, but the online world can be just as inaccessible as the real one. Many websites and services are not compatible with assistive technology like screen readers, which read text to visually impaired users or speech input so that people can talk to their computer instead of using a keyboard. Remember the Purple Pound from earlier? The organisation Purple estimates that businesses lose £17.1bn each year as disabled people click away from their inaccessible websites. In the Covid age where we're all doing far more online shopping, it makes sense to prioritise access.

12. 60 minutes of peace

Many of us look forward to a trip to the shops or the cinema, but these public spaces can be overwhelming to some autistic people. Bright lights, loud noises and crowds can cause sensory overload. That's why some shops and cinemas have been turning down their music and lights at certain times of the day, making it easier for autistic people to go out. We're seeing it more and more now.

13. Let me take you for a Stim

Stimming, also known as self-stimulating behaviour, is a kind of repetitive behaviour that autistic people perform such as flicking a rubber band or repeating words or noises. Not every autistic person stims but those that do can do so for a variety of reasons, such as to reduce or manage sensory input, or to reduce anxiety in overwhelming situations. Many autistic people rail against those who think it's a bad thing to do as it has significant benefits.

14. #Awks

We've all had that awkward moment when we've said something we shouldn't. Using the right language when talking to disabled people is important. Using identity first language, such as "disabled person" rather than "person with a disability", is preferred by lots of people for a very specific reason - it marks an important academic understanding of disability known as the social model and is the basis of the disability civil rights movement. Saying people first ignores the civil rights work but does emphasise the importance of identifying first as a person.

15. Please mind the gap

There are many more disabled people in the UK than often assumed. At least 22% of the UK's population, that's almost 14 million people, are disabled. However, according to Scope, 60% of those asked generally underestimate this figure. This 'perception gap' is often put down to a misunderstanding of what disability is.

16. Living a good life

As mentioned earlier, being disabled is expensive and this can have consequences. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, nearly a third of households with a disabled resident live in poverty, compared to 19% of non-disabled households. Although, since the DDA was passed the percentage of families affected has fallen slightly from 35% to 30% whilst the rate for families without a disabled resident has remained around one in five.

image copyrightBBC/Katie Horwich

17. Bump bump bumpety bump

We've all experienced a fire drill, and some of us are unlucky enough to have been through the real thing. We know to avoid most lifts in an emergency (unless it's an isolated lift designed for this purpose) but what if you can't use the stairs? Evacuation chairs may be the answer. They grip stairs to create a smoother descent. Any building must have an accessible way to evacuate during a fire, by law, and these chairs are one of the most common choices. The chairs require at least one other person to control the descent and that person must be trained to use it. However, some disabled people aren't big fans of this form of escape.

18. I can't see anything?

Not all impairments are visible. You might have heard about this over the past few years as the awareness of invisible disability has risen. On the list are neurodivergent conditions like autism and ADHD to mental ill health, Cystic Fibrosis and many in between. Some invisibly disabled people have taken to wearing sunflower lanyards to indicate that they are disabled so they can use disabled facilities without having to talk about it.

19. Inspiration Porn

This isn't as dirty as it sounds - it's all about the use of the I-word (inspiration!), a word that's often over-used with disabled people. If you call a disabled person an inspiration for just going about their daily life it's often not appreciated because it suggests you have low expectations of them. The term was popularised in 2012 by Australian disability rights activist and comedian Stella Young who particularly disliked the misplaced voyeurism, as she saw it, in media. A good way of sense checking whether it's ok to say the I-word is asking yourself: "What did they inspire me to do?", if it's walk to the shops or put clean socks on, maybe stop with the praise.

20. Ready for some maths?

We're pretty sure most people have seen ramps designed for wheelchair users, but it's not as simple as you might think. In accordance with building regulations, ramps cannot be too steep or too high, if the top of the ramp is greater than 2m above ground level, then an alternative such as a lift should be provided. The ideal gradient is 1:20, that's 5% on a road sign, which represents 20cm in length for every 1cm rise. They must also have landings with sufficient space at the top and bottom and no need for tricky three-point turns!

21. Born this way

"What happened to you?" or "Were you born like that?" are questions many disabled people loathe to hear. Not only because the answer may be distressing to talk about but because it focuses in on their difference. Allow us to present the stats. Fewer than one-in-five disabled people are born disabled, the majority become disabled later in life.

22. Who's talking in the background?

Ever heard an electronic monotone voice in the background of a meeting? It's probably your visually impaired colleague reading something more interesting than whatever you're droning on about. Many blind people use screen reading software that reads out the text on a computer or phone screen. In fact, a lot of blind users listen to their reader at 2.5x the speed of speech. That means, while it would take you around 33 hours to read War and Peace, with a screen reader it could take as little as 13 hours to listen to the whole thing!

image copyrightBBC/Katie Horwich

23. Dogs

Humans best friends are perhaps most known for their role as guide dogs for blind people. But they can also be trained to assist people with anxiety and panic disorders and to spot, prevent, and ease panic attacks. Similarly, assistance dogs can be trained as hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, and can even alert diabetic people when their blood sugar is too low. If you are paired with a dog, you won't get to choose the dog's name, as they've already been named for training. A few of our favourite guide dog names include Anton and Unity - imagine shouting that in the park?

24. Changing places

We might not like to admit it, but everybody uses the toilet. Accessible toilets have to cater to a lot of different needs and Changing Places are a larger version of the usual disabled loo that includes a hoist and changing bench. These are set to be made compulsory in new buildings from 2021, making them one of the most recent, and practical, victories for accessibility.

25. The last hurrah

If you've made it this far, congrats! We're going to sneak in one last self-indulgent fact.

The DDA is a trailblazer in the world of disability. But there are other great trailblazers too... like the Ouch podcast. It was the BBC's first podcast made just for a digital audience back in 2006 and is still going. Click this link.

For more disability news, follow BBC Ouch on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to the weekly podcast on BBC Sounds.