Opinion

Why assuming all wheelchair users don’t drink alcohol is “patronising and a form of discrimination”

One writer describes the often “patronising” experience of ordering alcoholic drinks as a wheelchair user.

It happened to me during one of my very first times in a bar as a wheelchair user. I had a cardiac arrest in April 2019 and subsequently suffered a brain injury. Now I use a wheelchair to get out and about, and I am no stranger to sitting in a pub in my chair and having a pint. But this was back in the summer of 2019 and I was still adjusting to my life as a wheelchair user.

I was in a bar on Lower Marsh in south London with my mum and we were waiting for her friends who were in the theatre. We both ordered cocktails – I can’t remember specifically what I ordered, but it was something suitably summery with tequila in it. Our cocktails arrived. I took a few sips of mine and knew that something wasn’t quite right. I passed it to my mum and she confirmed what I thought – it didn’t taste like there was any alcohol in there.

We called the waiting staff over and they confirmed that they had given me a mocktail. Why? It was pretty clear that she just assumed that because I am a wheelchair user, I don’t drink. I was swiftly handed the alcoholic version of the cocktail – the one that I had ordered. 

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“By assuming that disabled people don’t drink alcohol you are assuming that disabled people don’t live ‘normal’ lives,” says Meg.

I was reflecting on how bizarre this situation was the other day and I decided to tweet about it. I discovered what happened to me is not uncommon and that other people that use mobility aids have had similar experiences.

A lot of disabled people responded saying that if this happened to them they would complain. I didn’t, because I was so early on in my journey as a disabled person. I thought that this kind of treatment was acceptable, whereas now I know that it obviously is not.

Daisy, 28, is from the West Country. She uses crutches, and sometimes uses a wheelchair. Like me, she often gets comments when driving her wheelchair about ‘drinking and driving’. “Of course with people I’ve not known for long, they might say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you drank’,” she says. When I ask, “Why wouldn’t I?” they just look all awkward.

She also recalls one particular experience in a pub: “I went up to the bar to decide what I wanted and ordered a cider and I watched the bartender do some kind of mental maths in his head where he looked at me for a while and said, ‘You know that has alcohol in right?’” And I just stared back and him and said, “Yeah, that’s the idea.”

Lucy is 33 and is a manual wheelchair user. She has had comments in the past from people asking her friends if she should “be drinking in her condition?” This comment might sound like someone just looking out for a disabled person, but they do more harm than good and feed into negative stereotypes. “I am frustrated that casual everyday ableism affects me when I’m just minding my own business,” she said. Luckily, Lucy has great friends around her that aren’t afraid to respond to these hurtful and misguided questions.

By assuming that disabled people don’t drink alcohol you are assuming that disabled people don’t live ‘normal’ lives. Of course, that is not to say that all disabled people should drink or even that they can drink. But the assumption that we don’t is a harmful one. According to Scope, one in three disabled people feel that they face a lot of prejudice. But only one in five non-disabled people say there is a lot of prejudice towards disabled people.

Meg says that assuming disabled people don't drink is “patronising” and “infantilisation.”

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Obviously, none of these situations would have happened if we were non-disabled. It might not sound serious, it is ‘just a drink’, but it is a form of discrimination. It contributes to the othering of disabled people. As well as being patronising, it is also infantilising. This is where people treat disabled people as if we are children. Children don’t drink, and therefore disabled people shouldn’t either. The problem clearly lies not only with bar staff but with the wider public’s perception of disabled people. 

Alison Kerry, Head of Communications at disability equality charity Scope, told Stylist: “Too often, disabled people tell us about the negative attitudes they routinely face. Scope has found that two thirds of Brits say they feel awkward around disabled people. The harsh reality is, some people feel so awkward they avoid disabled people all together and when they do come into contact with disabled people, they often don’t know what to say. Sometime people can panic, make awkward gaffs or outrageous assumptions, such as that disabled people can’t have a drink.  

“Negative attitudes and misconceptions are not just insulting to disabled people, they can hold them back in all areas of life, from work, to shopping on the high street and to simply enjoying a drink out in town.

“Disabled people have a right to be treated equally. The ‘purple pound’ is worth approximately £249bn and if a disabled person has a good experience, they are likely to return, so it’s essential that companies provide specialist staff training if they want a slice of this pie.” 

Images: Meg Fozzard

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