Frances Ryan the Guardian
Increasingly, I feel lucky to leave the house. That’s a strange feeling for someone to have, particularly someone in their early 30s. As a millennial, I know I should be concerned with my nonexistent pension or ever diminishing chance of buying a home – and I am, really. But as a disabled person, I’m aware that nowadays even basic parts of a normal life can’t be taken for granted: going to the office, meeting friends in the pub, even regularly seeing another human being.
New research from the disability charity Scope has found almost half of working-age disabled people are chronically lonely, saying they “always or often” feel lonely. Staggeringly, that works out at about 3 million lonely disabled people in Britain.
The Office for National Statistics has described Britain as “the loneliness capital of Europe” – finding that we’re less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than inhabitants of any other country in the EU. Young people are said to be particularly affected.
But the Scope research points to what can only be called an epidemic of loneliness for disabled people in this country. It’s possible, of course, to be surrounded by people and still be lonely – but break down this week’s study, and this is about stark isolation. On a typical day, one in eight disabled people have less than a half-hour’s interaction with other people.
We’re rightly increasingly aware of how old age can lead to severe isolation – a recent study by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that almost three-quarters of older people in the UK are lonely – and the psychological and physical damage this can cause. However, we rarely talk about how, for a whole section of society, loneliness linked with disability and long-term health problems is a stain on decades of people’s lives. Perhaps one of the most disturbing findings of Scope’s research is how younger disabled people, like millennials generally, are affected: 85% of young disabled adults (classed as 18- to 34-year-olds) admit they feel lonely.
Beware of thinking that loneliness is some natural byproduct of disability. The strain of ill-health and disability can often lead someone to be isolated, but how society chooses to respond can either help fix it or compound it. I recently had a bad health spell that meant I was pretty much stuck in bed for two months. But even once I was better, I was very aware that – without support to leave the house or a relatively flexible job – I would still be in bed.
These sorts of fears are even stronger at a time when the government is dramatically underfunding the social care system, and tightening eligibility on disability benefits.
I speak daily to disabled people who are essentially cut off from society – twentysomethings unable to go to university, and not because of health problems but because they don’t have a social care package that enables them to get to lectures. Others are forced to be “put to bed” at 8pm because their council has restricted their care slots.
Increasingly I hear from disabled readers who for years have used the Motability car scheme to do something as basic as go to the shops but who, in their tens of thousands, are now housebound after cuts saw this benefit taken away. Or wheelchair users who haven’t been outside for months because, stuck in inaccessible housing, they can’t get beyond their own front door.
Last week the Guardian’s Disability Diaries chronicled how wheelchair users have to turn down invitations to see friends because the pub or restaurant – or public transport – isn’t accessible. It isn’t exactly surprising that disabled people are isolated when it’s still often impossible for us to get in the building.
But attitudes towards disability are also powerful barriers. Two-thirds of the British public admit that they actually feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people, according to separate Scope research. Worryingly, millennials are twice as likely as older people to feel awkward around disabled people: a fifth of 18- to 34-year-olds have actually avoided talking to a disabled person because they are unsure “how to communicate with them” – as if having a disability makes us a separate species.
It’s well established that there’s a stigma around admitting to loneliness – but for disabled people, a stigma around disability is contributing to loneliness. Imagine how lonely day-to-day life can be when the majority of the public avoid talking to you.
Whether it’s government policy removing our social care packages or a stranger ignoring us in the street, tackling this persistent idea that a disabled person is somehow different to other people – that we don’t want to work, laugh in a pub or go on a date – is going to be a crucial part of ending disability’s chronic loneliness.
Britain has a problem with isolating disabled people. Acknowledging that this actually matters is perhaps the first place to start.