Loneliness does not discriminate against age, race, gender or ability. As more disabled people in the UK face disproportionally high levels of loneliness, charities are working to tackle the issue of isolation amongst the disabled community
Research from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has revealed that staggering numbers of disabled people feel isolated because of their disability. Partnering with Sense, the national deafblind charity, research has revealed that disabled people in the UK are still being marginalised by other members of society – in part because of lack of understanding.
The figures show that one in four Brits admit to avoiding conversation with a disabled person – a staggering number ignited by a lack of knowledge and fear of offending, which has sparked an increase in loneliness amongst the disabled community.
Being diagnosed with Usher syndrome – the most common genetic form of deafblindness – at 16 years old, Ellen Watson has had periods of loneliness. “I’m sure you remember, but when you’re that age, your freedom and independence, to do what you want, get away from your parents, is the most important thing in the world,” recalls Ellen, now 22 and getting ready to start a work placement with the House of Commons.
“While my friends were gaining that freedom, mine was just stripped from me and I couldn’t leave the house on my own or anything like that. I think post-diagnosis was my trickiest point, definitely.”
Ian Capon has congenital rubella syndrome and has also experienced loneliness in his life. He says: “I regularly feel lonely. I see very few people. Sometimes if the weather is bad and there is not much happening, I can be indoors on my own, never hearing from or seeing anybody.” Many people in the UK have an all too familiar relationship with loneliness, which is why the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has stepped in.
Sense is an active participant in the Commission, working to break down barriers – their theme was spotlighting loneliness amongst disabled people. The research found that a quarter of disabled people feel lonely – a huge number. Alongside the research, Sense released their Someone Cares if I’m Not There report, detailing different experiences of loneliness people have had. It is important to remember that loneliness is not the same for everyone.
“There is the quote from Jo Cox that says: ‘We have much more in common than that which divides us.’ I think this is a really powerful quote, and I think it’s just about highlighting those situations that can indirectly cause loneliness without people realising and just encourage
people to make connections,” explains Sense policy manager, Sarah White. “If people are avoiding interaction because they don’t want to cause offence or they feel uncomfortable, then it’s about giving people the confidence to step out and realise they have got something in common with everyone.”
Leading a coalition of 21 disability charities, Sense are raising awareness of loneliness through social media channels and taking their report to Parliament. “We launched that report at a parliamentary reception. That was for all of the charity partners coming together and we had
a number of speakers from some of the different organisations speaking about their experiences of loneliness and disability, alongside MPs and members of the House of Lords,” says Sarah.
MORE IN COMMON
Eagerness to change attitudes towards disability and encouraging a conversation is the first step to making sure there are no longer high levels of loneliness. Ellen says: “I became really quite depressed and lonely [post-diagnosis]. Thankfully that didn’t last forever, but it was a very tricky time, it was a very dark place.” But it was during her reintroduction into society where Ellen saw some challenges.
She feels more understanding of disability is crucial. “What I love so much about what the Commission is doing in terms of raising awareness is that it’s not putting anyone on a pedestal – it is simply trying to show there is no need to overthink interactions with disabled people because it really is as simple as initiating a normal conversation,” she adds.
Community is also important in tackling loneliness, and it’s through Ian’s community that he ensures he does not experience long spells alone. Volunteering in his local Oxfam shop and running his own radio show helps Ian to interact with others. He says: “Working at the radio has helped to combat loneliness quite a lot because you get to know the listeners, they get to know you. We’re always talking to each other on the phone when they ring in. It’s good to have that connection really. It’s quite nice.”
Ensuring facilities are available for a disabled person in the community is important to alleviate levels of loneliness and getting people to interact with each other. “It’s finding the right sort of activity where disabled and able-bodied people can participate on an equal basis. The number one thing for me is to see that connectivity within the community, enabling greater participation and enabling more involvement,” adds Ian.
If more opportunities become available, and more disabled people feel comfortable and confident in joining groups and speaking out, the barriers of loneliness could be broken down. “I would rather someone talk to me and get it a bit wrong and I explain the right way to go about things over avoiding me completely,”
Starting a conversation is the first step towards integrating everyone into the community and preventing unnecessary loneliness – we are all people, after all.