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Awkward is as awkward does - Ending the Awkward

Employment and discrimination law specialist Emma Satyamurti praises Scope's new campaign - End the Awkward

Scope End the Awkward campaign
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Emma Satyamurti is an experienced employment lawyer and litigator. She advises and represents claimants in a wide range of employment claims including discrimination, dismissal and redundancy. Follow Emma on @esatyamurti.
Scope has just launched the third year of its End the Awkward ads and films. This is a fantastic campaign which shines a bright but very funny light on the social tangles some can get caught in when encountering people with disabilities. According to Scope, two thirds of people feel awkward around disability, so this is far from an occasional phenomenon.

The new ad depicts able-bodied people in an office being told to ‘H.I.D.E.’ as a new joiner of short stature is brought round to be introduced. Misunderstanding the instruction, they all dive for cover in a comic routine of exaggerated panic. But it turns out that H.I.D.E. stands for ‘say Hi, Introduce yourself, Don’t panic, and End the awkward.’

The slapstick is entertaining but the situation it addresses head-on is rarely amusing, at least not when you’re in it. Awkwardness, whether your own or someone else’s, is no fun. Plus it tends to be contagious; even if it starts off as the other person’s problem - a manifestation of their own anxiety when faced with having to interact with a person who looks or sounds different - you can easily end up feeling responsible for it. My experience as someone with hi-vis disabilities is that it can sometimes end up feeling like my job to end the awkward, as if I have to make up for the fact that my physical idiosyncrasies are plunging the other person into a turmoil which is in fact of their own (or society’s) making.

To take a recent retail-related example, as I approached the counter the shop assistant looked startled, then went into raptures over the cuteness of my shopping bag (which is in reality a kitsch and hideous affair), calling her colleague over in tones of wonder as if to view an exotic animal. I felt that in truth I was the exhibit, with the result that I became more fingers and thumbs than normal and dropped all my coins (that’s what I mean about awkwardness being catching). But instead of just finishing the transaction and escaping, I found myself making small talk about that wretched bag, putting them at ease (or trying).

Scope’s website has some brilliant clips of people with disabilities talking about how strangers react to them. Lots of the vignettes are hilarious, and it’s a relief to recognise one’s own ‘awkwards’ reflected in the wider pool of common experience.

But it’s not as if this particular brand of awkwardness is all one way. Don’t all but the most supremely confident of us know how it feels to get flustered and say the wrong thing, or worry that we have said the wrong thing, or avoid an encounter altogether because we are afraid of putting our foot in it? I can vouch for the fact that being disabled doesn’t immunise you from the kind of awkwardness highlighted in Scope’s campaign. I am just as likely as the next person to sneak covert glances at someone who looks unusual, or wonder how to greet someone without a functioning right hand.

And this is what I think lies at the heart of why Scope’s campaign works so well. Bringing out into the open that tangled confusion we call awkwardness (indeed even the word ‘awkward’ is awkward, with its central knot of strange consonants), makes it less scary and more funny, and most importantly, something we can talk about whichever side of the disability tracks we come from.  
 

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