What Does Disability Mean Anyway?


In 1999 I started a MA in Disability Studies in Sheffield that I gave up after a year because it was bias towards psychoanalysis, something I really could not get my head around. I however gained a lot from the experience and the first lesson I learnt was that within disability, there are two basic but unanswerable questions. These are what is disability? And how many people are disabled?

To the average person these may look easy questions but as soon as you examine them properly, you realise they are impossible to answer. Disability is a socially constructed concept, like many things we assume to be the norm, and what is interesting is how many different definitions of disability exist. If we ignore other countries and just focus on the UK, and even than just on legal definitions of disability, we can still find quite a number. How disability is defined in the equality act is different to that to qualify for DLA/PIP, which is different to qualify for ESA, social care and even educational support. The definitions of disability are contradictory, incompatible and confusing in trying to understand what assistance someone may apply for.

But all these definitions are based on one of two models of disability, which are the medical model and social model, as defined by disabled people themselves. The medical model was born out of the industrial revolution and sees disability as a medical problem, where a person’s “deficiencies” is the focus of attention, that needs curing or removing since a disabled person is an inferior being that has no meaningful place in society. Over a century ago, this way of thinking saw the creation of special schools and residential institutions that are still to some degree with us today. Most people would like to believe we have moved on from the medical model but I am not sure this is actually the case and in fact worry that in recent years, the medical model has been widely adopted by many supposed disability activists.

In the 1970s, a group of disabled people got tired of the negative portrayal of themselves as bundles of medical problems and created another way of looking at disability. They firstly divided the biological side of the issue, impairment, from the social side, disability. So the social model acknowledges biological differences, impairment, as a matter of fact, eg I have cerebral palsy and this is just the way it is. But the model argues that disability is the social barriers that people with impairments face that as physical access, poor attitudes, lack of personal support and so on. It is a model that has been widely adopted by most disability activists, charities and others internationally, and has been central to much social policy since the 1990s.

As someone who has grown up with the social model and for the most part, lived the social model, I have made my own observations and interpretations. Firstly, I think it is becoming increasingly accepted that everyone has impairments in one way or another, and more importantly that not everyone who has some kind of impairment experiences disability, which is social barriers. Impairments need to be managed, as a fact of life, and the personal experiences of impairment, however difficult, may not bring disability. I feel this is a concept people are just starting to acknowledge and trying to understand.

Secondly, I personally regard disability to be a state that changes from minute to minute like the concept of being vulnerable. My core identity is my impairment and I see disability as external to myself. I am only disabled by many specific situations, which can be removed by improved access, improved attitudes, personal support and so on. I am therefore not often disabled at home because my environment is set up for me. When I go somewhere new, they may be more barriers and therefore I would be disabled. On this basis, I see the role of government is to remove these barriers and so reducing the number of people with impairments who experience disability. It is however difficult for many people with impairments to relinquish their disability status.

Finally, I see the social model as removing the barriers that are in the way of disabled people taking up their responsibilities as opposed as being about rights as citizenship is a balance of rights and responsibilities. As this dawns on people now many barriers are been undoubtedly removed over the last 20 years, there are continuous moves by some people to discredit the model, saying it is ‘old hat’ or arguing a range of excuses why it does not include them. This makes me wonder why disabled people fought for the equality they now have when this is not what they really wanted?

Disability is a concept that is far more complex than people would ever imagine and this article has only provided you with a brief insight into the issue that has more questions than answers.

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