The Need for a New Approach

Disability is a social problem – fact! The real question is ‘how do we solve this’? It’s quite a big and complex puzzle, created after many years of historical goings on. So, we have to first ask why have disabled people been isolated, marginalised and oppressed for so long? Why do we have buildings and transport systems without full access? Why are disabled people less likely to be employed, to participate in sports and to be socially included?

Disabled people take a stance that historically they were seen as the ‘problem’ (explained within the medical model of disability). If their medical condition couldn’t be cured (and some weird practises took place on this front), it was deemed better to send disabled people away from society.

During the 1970’s a group of disabled people decided this just wasn’t right, thank god, and spoke out against it. These few people articulated what has become known as the Social Model of Disability. This was the first great progressive ideology for the movement. In essence it states that disabled people have a medical condition (or impairment) but are not disabled by this, instead by societal barriers. These barriers are seen in the physical environment, in peoples attitudes, and in organisational policies/procedures. Without steps, stereotypes and silly procedures; everyone is able!

There is still the question of where ‘internal barriers’ fit within the Social Model. Limitations such as ones impairment, socio-economic background, ability to purchase supportive technologies, personality traits (confidence and self belief) are barriers that society cannot always provide solutions for. However, I feel a barrier is there to be overcome (internal or external). An individual has the responsibility for their personal growth, whilst society has a duty to remove all external barriers.

These models and the language used within them are very important to disabled people. The phrase ‘people with disabilities’ within the Social Model does not make sense, but some people prefer self-identifying with this expression. Debates will continue for years on this one I am sure. Importantly, this ownership of language and the understanding of an empowering model underpins the disability rights movement. This second progressive ideology from disabled people outlines the views of Human Rights and equal access to everyday life. This is theoretically very difficult to argue with, so why in 2012 are disabled people still facing so many barriers and social exclusion?

If we look at race issues, disability is around 20 years behind. The first Race Relations act was in 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act was in 1996. We still see racism today showing the further struggle ahead, but we have seen vast improvements on both fronts too, giving us hope.

One area I have been musing over is language. Following a conversation with Philip Connolly at the RNIB, I have had this concept reaffirmed. Words are powerful things; they can offend and enlighten at any moment. They give people an identity, a belonging and a label. Rightly or wrongly words could be the key to this whole issue.

At present our worlds living standards are as unequal as ever, our economies are struggling, our natural resources diminishing and our social morals tested everyday. When we look at the key players responsible for improving the lives of disabled people, we may include: government, businesses/employers, everyday citizens, disabled people themselves and you.

Let’s take a brief moment to consider these stakeholders priorities and how a different type of language could bridge the gaps between them:

Government – Without opening up a debate around traditional economics vs Keynsian economics, our current government in the UK are trying to eradicate debt. Some of their perceived attacks on disabled people are in seeking cuts to the welfare bill. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that offering financial support to disabled people in jobs and those seeking work will have a long term economic gain. If the large pool of disabled people are used in the economic workforce, the support ‘bill’ would be lower, and the income tax revenue made higher.

More than that, a vibrant, motivated, innovative and resilient pool of people would be mobilised. Maybe disabled people are the answer to the global economic problems. Either way, supporting those able to work into employment is a win:win. With the overall costs lowered, and income tax higher; the need to cut the welfare bill would be obsolete, and those unable to work could comfortably receive the support they rightly deserve.

Businesses and Employers – This argument follows the same line as above for government. Whilst the government invests in disabled people to be independent, active in the workforce, and socially included; businesses need to see the benefits for all in reducing the current barriers to employment. With some simple steps of making buildings more accessible, implementing good quality Disability Awareness Training, and encapsulating inclusion in all procedures; everyone would see vast advantages. A business will be employing an untapped and unrepresented part of society, receive new ideas and insights, understand 20% of their market more genuinely, and I am positive they would see better turnover and profits.

Everyday citizens – Most people just do not see, let alone understand disability. The problem with the Social Model is that whilst it rightly empowers disabled people, it blames other people. These other people have never purposefully created these barriers, nor set out to exclude disabled people. Therefore if the concept of barriers, exclusion and the benefits of inclusive societies are calmly and openly discussed; I believe the good nature of people would prevail. Once the masses of public opinion start to see this tainted history and the unfairness of not accessing public transport, public buildings and parts of everyday life; we would see a seismic shift in perceptions of disability. This should not create pity, but resonate as a humans right to a fulfilled life, no matter what their challenges are.

Disabled people – As much as being born with or acquiring a disability sucks, I cannot see the use of negative energy. Using the Social Model of Disability and expecting to have your rights is perfect. Make this your aim! However consider the way this is achieved. If we blame government, businesses and society they will simply switch off. If we talk in a language that resonates and better still works within their aims, without compromising our principles; we will get further. As much as it is great to feel part of the struggle and the movement, we have to break out of that silo and offer solutions to those holding the power to implement them.

You – Whoever you are, you will definitely fall into one of the above, and probably more. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and no-one expects you to change the world overnight. However please have a think about these sentiments. Is there any where or any way by changing your message, words or methods that others might react more positively about disability as a social problem? If so, give it a go and see how you get on.

I am not suggesting this is the answer to an age old problem, but I think it is a factor that can be rectified easily. Having put my musings and thoughts out there, I would be grateful if you would hit reply, write a comment or tweet me on your thoughts too. Even if this isn’t the answer, maybe, just maybe, it’s a newer approach that could unlock other unknown solutions down the line.

Thanks for reading this and don’t forget to keep me posted on your general news too. I’m only at the other end of this beautiful thing called the internet :-)