'Disability is nothing to be inspired by and labelling us vulnerable is dangerous', warns Samantha Renke
Samantha Renke has had enough of ignorant attitudes towards disabled people.
The 34-year-old tells me that labelling someone with a disability as "vulnerable" or "inspirational" is highly "detrimental".
"I don't ever see myself as a vulnerable person," she asserts. "I'm only ever vulnerable if my environment or those around me don't meet my needs."
Stop labelling people with a disability as 'vulnerable'
Actress, presenter, and disability activist Samantha was born with a rare genetic condition known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta or brittle bone disease. Because of this, she's been shielding since March during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Many have struggled with quarantining and social-distancing during lockdown. However, Samantha tells me that the "new normal" hasn't been all that different to her life previously.
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"In so many ways, I feel ironically blessed because I was prepared for it," she admits. However, she tells me that she's also faced discrimination during the crisis. "I think that it's really important to acknowledge that disabled people do live in some form of lockdown," Samantha adds.
Reflecting over lockdown, she highlights that elderly people have been spoken about using similar ableist narratives. "There's a very stereotypical image of what a vulnerable person is," she says. "Unfortunately, vulnerable is often synonymous with disposable. We've seen this with the older generation and the government's move to prioritise the economy over lives."
Over the last 12 months, Samantha has had to challenge people on this subject countless times. Disturbingly, she has even had to explain why her life is worth saving.
'Disability is nothing to be inspired by'
Samantha goes on to touch on the uptick of "inspirational porn" during this period. This, she explains, perpetuates a harmful, ableist narrative.
"Disability is not a dirty word," she stresses. "It's nothing to be pitied and it's nothing to be inspired by.
"We're all a bit miserable – so what does the media do? Drag out a disabled child, who maybe has no limbs. That post will smash the likes. It basically makes [non-disabled people] go, 'Well we can't really moan that much, because, hey, it could be worse.'
"We are just people at the end of the day. And yes, we have had to overcome stuff, but a lot of that is due to the social barriers we face. When you go, 'Oh my God, you really inspire me. You've overcome your disability,' you're actually saying 'I recognise that your life is sh*t. Your life is hard.'
"If you find me inspirational, what have I inspired you to do?" Samantha asks. "Have you become an ally or an advocate?"
The pandemic has, however, shone a light on many workplace-related issues that the disabled community have had to contend with for years.
As the activist explains, disabled people have the highest unemployment rate amongst any minority. Historically, she says, this was because employers were unable to think outside the box – in terms of accessibility and remote working. These two things have now, of course, become buzzwords.
"It's a bittersweet by-product," Samantha tells me. "It's sad that it's taken a pandemic to see that we are employable. Clearly, they just weren't willing to think outside of the box. There's been a lot of moments for disabled people where we've been seen as 'experts in the field'."
Samantha, personally, got quite a lot of work at the start of the crisis "because non-disabled people wanted my knowledge – so to speak – on how to work remotely."
The power of the 'purple pound'
This all feeds into the power of the Purple Pound; that is, the spending potential of disabled households.
According to We Are Purple, organisations are missing out on the business of disabled customers due to poor accessibility – both physical and digital.
They report that businesses lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people. In addition to this, the spending power of disabled people and their households has continued to rise. In 2017, this was estimated to be worth £249 billion per year to UK businesses.
"Thanks to the pandemic, people are finally realising that there are business opportunities in remote working and making public spaces accessible," Samantha says matter-of-factly. "If we're hell-bent on only valuing people in regards to what they can bring to the table money-wise then disabled people can do that too.
"Making the world a more inclusive place will benefit everyone in society. It's just a shame that this eureka moment came because of a global pandemic."