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Disabled, not drunk

Most pubs I go to are perfect for someone with cerebral palsy: they ignore my disability. If they see me walking around, they don’t assume I’m pissed. If I trip over, someone will help me up, not hound me out. And, when I ask them to read a menu on a blackboard, they assume it’s because I am one of the 2 million people living in the UK with partial sight, not because I am having visions o’ Old Nick.

Sometimes things haven’t been perfect. Back in 2011, I was injured by bouncers in Cambridge who chucked me out of a club because they thought I’d consumed more than I could handle (and I can handle a lot more than one drink). At a bar in Edinburgh a few years ago, I called the police after the door staff forcefully evicted me. On occasion, I am denied service at bars for similar reasons – staff equating my spastic walk with the effects of alcohol. Usually, they apologise. The manager in Cambridge even gave me free entry for my next visit.

Very occasionally, however, an experience can be so bad that the culprit deserves to be named. Thankfully, I’ve had only one of these: at the Black Cat in Edinburgh’s West End. Not only did the staff not apologise, but the duty manager said I had offended her by complaining. She was backed by the head honcho of the Black Cat, Chris Miles. Reading reviews of his baby online, it seems my experience isn’t a one off. This treatment wasn’t just down to bad training, it is Black Cat policy.

So, here’s a blow-by-blow account of how my night progressed. I’ve adapted it from notes I was sober enough to jot down when I got home. I’ve changed the names of Mr. Miles’ staff.

It started when I got up from my table to use the toilets. My jerky walking style raised alarm-bells with the bar staff, who assumed I walked weirdly because I was drunk. When a friend tried to buy drinks for me, the bartender, Laura, refused and told my friend I had much alcohol and was too drunk to be given any more.

Laura then approached my table and gave me a glass of water. My friend explained to her I was not drunk, but had a disability that might make people believe I was.

After discussing the matter among friends, I decided to get a dink from the bar on my own. Laura refused once again. At least she was consistent: telling me she thought I was intoxicated.

I asked to speak to her manager. Jane agreed to speak with me outside, and away from prying eyes. Jane explained her take on what had happened: while accepting I was sober enough to consume more alcohol, the pub’s refusal to serve was Laura’s decision to make, based on personal observation. Laura’s judgement couldn’t possibly be revised, even though Jane accepted that other factors had more of an influence on how I looked to her underlings.

I explained to Jane why this is unacceptable: surely when assessing how wasted a punter is, their disability should count for something. If the Black Cat were to apply the same standard to all people with my condition, no one with cerebral palsy would ever be able to purchase alcohol. Disabled people have a right to be treated the same as any one else, and this means that their disabilities need to be taken into consideration when they are being served. Otherwise, anyone could be denied service for virtually anything because they looked, sounded or acted funny. That’s why Scotland has strict laws against disability discrimination.

Still Jane refused to accept my logic. She reluctantly spoke to her superior, Mr. Miles, who told her that she must follow her own judgement. When I told Jane that I would be taking the matter further, she accused me of ‘blackmail’. I was so shocked she had used the term, I took out my phone and noted it down.

This sort of treatment brings back memories of the school bully. I am discriminated against solely because I look a certain way. It pains me that in a famously-tolerant city like Edinburgh, I can still be treated like a drunken lout just because I have a disability.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is all too common. Katie’s attitude reminds me of my experience many years ago. While walking down a street early evening, a woman suddenly turned to her toddler: “Get away from that man! He’s dangerous!” she shouted. After seconds of incomprehension, I realised the woman meant me. I confronted her, as I always do, with the facts: “Excuse me, I have cerebral palsy, it makes me walk like this”. To this, the woman replied by shielding her son from me and shoving him in the other direction.

The Black Cat’s discrimination is as bald as this: not based on observation or judgement, still less on licensing law, as the duty manager claimed. It is based on ignorance and prejudice. Their refusal to listen to my side of the story is like the mum in Cambridge who became frightened when I explained things. Both manager and mum did not want their authority to be diminished.

It’s not just me. This sort of experience is so common for people like me that the Hollywood actress Kathleen Turner even played the role: pretending to be drunk rather than confess she had arthritis. While there now been numerous attempts to expose it in the media, it still persists. Bad licencing laws — like those we have here in Edinburgh — do not take it into consideration people’s disabilities, and poor training prevents people, like Katie, from telling a disabled person from a drunk person.

Most importantly, the public needs to be made to distinguish the disabled from the drunk. Otherwise, more and more people like me will be abused.

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