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Judging People, Not Disabilities

Those of you familiar with Strictly Come Dancing will be aware that Katie Piper was voted off the show on Sunday evening. It came as no surprise really, because quite frankly, her Jive was flat-footed and lacked pizzazz. As Katie stood in front of the judges for the last time, her face was etched largely with resignation. But, in my opinion, it was also tinged with some relief. Her dancing never really looked like it would evolve or be able to contend with the likes of Ashley 'I've been doing this all my life' Roberts. But more importantly, she never looked 100% comfortable in the glaring spotlight. I don't think she revelled in being centre stage and I wonder how much of that comes down to her disability.

I've always been concerned with the way I look. I grew up in North London and went to a mixed comprehensive secondary school. We weren't required to wear a uniform, so clothes were important. Aspirational value was placed on items such as trainers and jackets, while fleeting trends would infiltrate the acquisition of various 'garms'. Fundamentally though, the primary goal was to blend in. I wasn't seeking to be the best dressed or have the best creps. I just needed to make sure I didn't have the worst creps or look as if my mum had dressed me. For those students that weren't able to meet the standards of the playground, the judgement was harsh and the lesson was unkind.

'Blending in' is something that pre-occupies a lot of disabled people. This is mainly because it feels unattainable. It's a bit like being the only Away Fan sitting in the Home Fan part of the stadium: You stick out like a sore thumb, wondering whether the crowd will forgive your intrusion. From the moment I became a wheelchair user, I became aware of an innate social stigma toward disability. What's more, as someone who lived an abled-bodied life for the first 28 years, I had to manage my own perceptions of what it meant to be disabled.

Fundamentally, this is the notion that disability is a bad thing. You got a spinal injury? Bad. You got motor neurone disease? Bad. You got facial disfigurement? Bad. This whole heap of bad creates a negative point of departure for anyone managing their own disability. What I mean by this is that in addition to the actual, physical symptoms that are experienced through disability, there are cultural obstacles to overcome as well. After all, it's one thing to meet the approval of your physiotherapist, but an entirely different thing to meet the approval of a crowded room. Or, in other words, it's one thing to be disabled, but quite another to look disabled.

For the disabled person, it's all about confidence and acceptance. Am I confident to present myself in this physical form, so that I am accepted for who I am? But acceptance is a two-way street. What's more, as with confidence, acceptance can change from day-to-day and person-to-person. There are degrees of acceptance that range from 'we tolerate you' to 'welcome to the party'. There is acceptance laced with pity. And there is acceptance tinged with disgust. There is the inquisitively unabashed acceptance of children. And there is the clumsy apologetic acceptance of their parents. There is acceptance that breeds confidence. And there is acceptance that takes it away.

When Katie Piper was interviewed after bowing out of Strictly, she spoke about rediscovering the confidence she had when she was younger. In my opinion, she is referring to a period in her life prior to the acid attack that scarred her. She is reminding us that behind every disability there is a person seeking to overcome society's perception of that disability. Katie choose to meet her disability head on, by entering one of the biggest shows on prime time TV. That, in itself, already requires a degree of confidence. But for Katie, the opportunity was probably too big to pass up. Not because she aspires to be an A-List celebrity, but because she saw it as a chance to, as her charity website says, "create a world where scars do not limit a person's function, social inclusion or sense of well-being."

The key terms here are "social inclusion" and "well-being". They are the same concepts as acceptance and confidence. Katie knows full well that the only way to mitigate the unwanted stares is to increase the exposure of disability to the point of normalisation. By appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, Katie acted on behalf of all people who live with scars and burns. Every time she stepped on to the dance floor she was seeking social acceptance from the British public. It was a bold move. And while she might not have revelled in the spotlight, she certainly put it to good use.

In Strictly, they judge the dance and not the person.

In the playground, we need to judge the person and not the disability.

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