Not being pedantic – but an important distinction

I’m writing this because of a blog post I saw yesterday which claims to reveal social charity incomes e.g.

  • Scope – 101 million pounds
  • Mencap – 194 million pounds
  • RNIB – 135 million pounds
  • Leonard Cheshire – 155 million pounds

Unfortunately, this isn’t referenced. However, the Charity Commission for England and Wales reveals a total annual income of all registered main charities exceeding £26billion and that seems to be a lot of money. However, the real rationale for this post lies in the accompanying text. Still unreferenced but I know it echoes current research e.g. the Scope ComRes survey showing attitudes to ‘disabled’ people have deteriorated , and the recent report uncovering disability hate crime No Hiding Place. So  although there are no sources, I’m quoting from the blog directly.

  • There is a stigma associated with being labelled as ‘disabled’;
  • Being labelled disabled can impact on your ability to get, and keep, a job;
  • Being disabled is not seen in any way as a positive personal attribute by the wider society.

How do you read these statements? I think they contain a potential ambiguity which is damaging to the individuals concerned. The word disabled is described as being attached to the person by a label. You can label something without it necessarily being correct or appropriate, so this isn’t necessarily calling the person disabled, but what is missing is the next stage where the reader needs to be reminded we are disabled as much by a hostile environment and social attitudes as by our diversity or difference.  

The Disability Rights Movement  called for a Social Model of Disability to replace the existing Medical Model. They wanted to show how we are disabled by external barriers – in the built environment and in cultural attitudes and misconceptions – which fail to cater for a broad enough range of diversity and difference. This approach does not deny the reality of impairment – it is about calling for social change in order to reduce barriers to access and participation and a starting point is the language we use.

I know it sounds pedantic but there are key differences between the phrase ‘being disabled’ and ‘being disabled by society’. It’s an important distinction and one which needs to be kept in mind.

2 Replies to “Not being pedantic – but an important distinction”

  1. It’s not so clear-cut as some Social Model advocates would like it to be. I am clearly disabled by society, but I am also clearly disabled by my impairment. It isn’t society, or a lack of reasonable adjustments, that has me spending most of my life flat on my back, but the fact that if I stand or sit I’ll very quickly be in considerable pain. Even a completely accessible environment and society built on Social Model precepts would be impossible for me to access to any significant degree. Properly applied, the Social Model is entirely compatible with this reality, but any failure to acknowledge the duality leaves a considerable proportion of disabled people very poorly served by the model.

    We should be campaigning on a Social Model basis, but one that recognises and acknowledges that many disabled people are disabled by both society and by their impairment. In fact trying to claim that the problem lies with society alone, that the problems have been fixed by DDA and EA, and that any remaining issues are solely due to the inherent laziness of the disabled (sic) is at the core of ConDem policy.

    A final reason to steer warily through the Social Model minefield is that non-disabled people aren’t aware of it and don’t understand it, being predominantly stuck in the Personal Tragedy Model, and therefore it’s very easy to shoot ourselves in the foot by presenting an argument they don’t understand and can’t follow. The simplest and most familiar presentation is the one that will work best, so don’t try to redefine ‘disability’ to the general audience, that we experience ‘discrimination’ through society and the environment gets our message across far more clearly.

  2. Very much agree with what you say here and the problems with the medical (and often architecural) model. However, getting the social model of disability recognised needs an active public platform and I am surprised that this taking so long to appear. Niche media programs seem to cater (sic) to it but it needs to be socially promoted. It would be interesting to see where this is taught in curricula from KS4 through FE and into HE.

    I find I get more interest in disability issues if one asks non-disabled people if they expect never to have a disability – but if they did, how would they cope with what they do now. Also, ask how many spend time supporting somone with a disability with their IT, and what frustrates this?

    I hope the Race Online 2012 campaign takes advanage of the expertise and resources already established to get all appropraite roles more familiar with the supporting infrastructure.

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