Published: 26 February 2023


We've just returned from a week's holiday in Cambridge. It was a really great week, with some fabulous days out. However, as always, we came under the assumptions assault. Some are subtle, some are in your face, some are just downright weird. Anyway, I'd like to share some of the assumptions we met this week.

Wheelchair users need a hearing loop

I think this one ranks quite highly in the really weird category of assumptions. We arrived for sung eucharist at Ely Cathedral and explained to the lady on the door that we'd booked a place in the North Transept. She started explaining where it was and then an elderly gentleman said that he was going there and would show us the way.

I told him that the first place I needed was the toilet and he appeared to have heard and understood. We followed him and eventually arrived in the South Transept, where there was neither a toilet, nor our booked space. He then realised he had made a mistake and apologised, saying, "I assumed, being handicapped, you'd need the hearing loop." It took me a while to actually process what he said at all, as the word handicapped is really not an acceptable term any more and kind of reverberated around my ears for a while.

What a strange assumption to make though! Why would being a wheelchair user mean I need a hearing loop? Is it that some people don't actually understand what these technologies are at all... they just lump them all together as being something to do with disabled people?

I think maybe that is the root of a lot of stereotyping, across all protected characteristics... and we're probably all guilty of it to some degree. We lump people together: black people, women, LGBT people, young people, old people... and we assume that they are all the same in their needs (or wants). So maybe this highlights an area where we all need to be more careful and stop assuming.

Photo of Ely Cathedral, taken across parkland.
You're not allowed to take photos inside the cathedral during services, so I thought a nice landscape view of the whole building would be good.

Disabled people don't work

A lot of places now, when you buy tickets, ask whether you want to Gift Aid your entry price. For anyone who doesn't know, Gift Aid Opens in new window is a UK tax thing where if you give money to a charity, and you have already paid tax on that money (because you earned it), the charity can claim back the tax that you paid. It means they get an extra 25p back from the government for every £1 you pay.

This week, the assumption culprit happened to be the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, but to be fair to them, it happens a lot. As people are paying their entry fees, they are asked, "Do you want to gift aid that?" Except us. We don't get asked that.

So this time, we asked them, "Can we gift aid that?"

The man behind the desk looked a little uncomfortable as he explained that you can only gift aid it if you have paid tax on it. The assumption here is that disabled people don't work, don't earn and don't pay tax.

There are many reasons why this assumption causes problems. At the level of one tourist attraction, it's no big deal, but the problem is that this assumption persists throughout all of society, which means that all medical, support, retail, and other services that are specific to disabled people are almost exclusively Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. Because we don't work.

This is a pain because it means disabled people need to take time off work to do stuff that is necessary to their survival, health and wellbeing. And that leads to employers thinking we don't work hard or are a bit of a risk. And that leads to some disabled people, like me, feeling that they have to choose between their career and their health. For me, my health has to take second place. It's not right but it all starts from the assumption that disabled people don't work.

Photo of several large aeroplanes on display, with the American Museum in the distance.
I could hardly take a photo of the man's confused face so here's a picture of some aircraft instead.

Wheelchair users (probably female) are weak

Alright, so I'm going to make an assumption here too. I'm going to assume that if I was a young bloke in a wheelchair, I'd be treated differently, especially if I looked a bit hard and had a tattoo.

Again, this week's culprit was the Imperial War Museum but this was also very noticeable when we visited Chatham Historic Dockyard, about a year ago. And they are fairly similar types of venues... male voluntary staff, that are at least one generation older than me, and large sites with lots of indoor and outdoor stuff to see.

It all starts off okay, they explain the layout of the site, give me a map to hold (now that could be one of several assumptions) and tell us about any wheelchair routes. Then they tell you about the accessible bus that is available throughout the day to take you between exhibits. I thank them, but say that we're fine to walk, whilst the weather is good.

That's when they look at me a bit funny and explain that the site is a mile from end to end and at the far end, there's a slight gradient up to the American Museum. I smile and say that will be fine. And that's when they suggest that Neil might want to push me up the hill. And that's when my face and Neil's response pretty much match perfectly. I have no handles on my chair and he values his life and marriage too much to do something so silly!

The thing is with this assumption, I can understand where it comes from. Not all wheelchair users have got upper body strength. But then, not all abled people can walk a long way. Neil's back has restricted his ability to walk much over recent months, but nobody is suggesting that I push him up hills or that he might need to take the bus.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I never need help. I often ask Neil to help me. Usually, I ask him to walk behind me to prevent me from tipping over backwards on steep slopes, or to stop people randomly deciding to push me (which can cause injury). In extreme situations, like climbing Snowdon, we go for a team work approach... but not on a massive expanse of perfectly flat concrete. How do they think I manage the rest of life? Hills? Cambers? Potholes? Obstacles? In my opinion, venues like this museum would be the perfect place to teach a beginner some wheelchair skills, because it is so easy! It's the last place I would need help!

Photo of perfectly flat ground with museum buildings in the background.
Most of the outdoor areas were like this - possibly the easiest ground for wheeling on.

Training my dog

I'm not even sure if this is an assumption but I get asked it a lot. Are you training your dog? It's one of those questions that I always feel a bit weird about. When we were first matched and Liggy was easily distracted and took ages to get back on task, I felt like they were implying that she couldn't possibly be a proper assistance dog because she wasn't perfect enough.

Now though, people ask it when she's being practically perfect. It's too random a question to be just a conversation filler, to make people feel like they have something to say. So what assumptions are sitting behind it? Why do they think I'm training her, rather than her being my assistance dog?

Maybe, they assume that the only real assistance dogs are guide dogs, and because I'm not blind, I must be training her. And of course, I don't work, remember? So I've probably got all the time in the world to train a dog.

Or maybe, they assume that a fully trained assistance dog wouldn't need any commands or instruction given. So when I ask her to lie down, that means she must be still in training. A fully trained dog would be psychic and know exactly what I want her to do.

So just for the record, Liggy is a fully trained assistance dog. She hasn't been in training for over five years. However, she is always being trained. In the same way as I did my O levels (the ancient equivalent of GCSEs) when I was 16 and officially left compulsory school, but then did college, uni, professional training, more uni, continued professional development, etc... Liggy does the assistance dog equivalent of continued training, because there's always something more to learn and she's a very intelligent dog that loves to learn new things. Like humans, she also sometimes needs to brush up on some skills or learn a different way of doing something as she gets older.

Photo of Liggy, a black labrador, wearing her Canine Partners jacket and lying calmly on the floor next to my wheels.
I took this pic whilst I was waiting for lunch to arrive. We were in the outdoor picnic area at Anglesey Abbey on a lovely warm day, and Liggy was quite happy lying here in the sunshine.