The BADD entry
What is disablism?
The word “disablism” was coined by the DEMOS think tank when its members were commissioned to produce a report about disability discrimination by the charity Scope in preparation for the launch of its “Time to Get Equal” campaign on October 1st 2004. To the best of my knowledge, the word didn’t exist prior to the publication of that report. (The behaviour did, of course. It just didn’t have a one-word title.)
The report defines disablism as follows:
Is that really what it is?
Personally, I consider the DEMOS definition to be phrased a little strongly. Whilst it would be true to say that “treating disabled people in an unequal manner” would be covered by it, I believe that the majority of discriminatory behaviour towards disabled people in the Western world in this day and age is unconscious. Whereas the DEMOS definition rather implies that only behaviour predicated on conscious (and possibly malicious) intent counts.
Take the example of non-disabled people parking in blue-badge bays. Are they doing so because they believe on a conscious level that disabled people are inferior to them? Or are they doing so because they are in a hurry and they are thoughtless and selfish? The effect on the disabled driver who has to turn round and go home is the same, of course, but the motivation behind the action is considerably less sinister.
The DEMOS definition, to me, carries an implication of hate crime. And, although hate crimes towards disabled people undoubtedly do take place, most non-disabled people would be appalled if their behaviour towards us was called into question on these terms. Generally speaking, there isn’t anything like the same degree of conscious hatred towards disabled people as exists in some circles towards racial or religious minority groups or homosexuals. There aren’t, for example, entire political groups specifically set up to foster intolerance towards us. Possibly because we really are too diverse a group to engender that level of dislike, or possibly because we don’t represent the same level of threat. After all, we’re unlikely either to invade a foreign country or persuade impressionable children to adopt our “lifestyle”.
The vast majority of non-disabled people don’t hate us. But they don’t treat us as equals either. And therein lies the rub. Unconscious prejudice can be harder to tackle than its conscious counterpart because most of its perpetrators don’t recognise that there’s anything wrong in their attitudes or behaviour.
“I’m not disablist, but…”
… is a phrase no-one uses. Yet one regularly hears its counterpart, “I’m not racist/anti-Semitic/homophobic, but…”. Now, of course, anyone who says that is actually saying, “I am deeply prejudiced against a particular minority group, but I recognise that there are a lot of people who would strongly object to my views, so I’m going to pretend that I’m not.”
Nobody feels the need to say, “I’m not disablist, but…” because disablism is not generally held to be a societal evil in the same way that racial hatred and homophobia are. Disability discrimination barely causes a blip on most people’s radar. But it’s about time it did.
"Now, don’t you bother your pretty little head about it… "
Because a considerable proportion of disablist behaviour stems from misplaced motives of pity and kindliness, there are parallels between disablism and the way women were treated prior to the birth of the feminist movement. In the same way that the majority of men believed they were doing “the fairer sex” a favour by protecting them from the perils outside their own front doors, many non-disabled people mistakenly assume that we need to be protected from the big, bad world and are therefore perplexed and insulted if we throw this “kindness” back in their faces. (I’m not saying that either sexism or disablism is excusable on these grounds: I’m merely pointing out that assuming that all non-disabled people rub their hands together with glee every time we’re excluded from something is neither an accurate nor a helpful starting point in the fight to end disablism.)
Again, this kind of “benevolent discrimination” is in some ways more difficult to tackle than that which derives from active hatred. Hate crimes are illegal in this country: kindness crimes are not. (And I am not, of course, saying that kindness is a bad thing per se. Just that, when misdirected and unnecessary, it can blight the lives of those on the receiving end. Also, when applied in an indiscriminate manner towards a particular group of people, it’s indicative of a basic, underlying belief that members of the group in question are in some way intrinsically unfortunate. For which, read, “unequal”.)
And why, for heaven’s sake, are there so many people who labour under the delusion that we need someone to speak for us in equality debates? Some of the most articulate people I know are disabled. And, whilst it’s certainly both possible and desirable for people who don’t belong to a particular minority to speak out in support of equality for that group, they can’t speak from a position of knowledge. They can’t know what it’s like to live as part of that minority.
One major difference between disabled people and people from other minority groups is that many – if not most - of us require some level of “care”. This may be nothing more arduous than an annual visit to the doctor, or it may take the form of full time personal assistance. In either case, there is a whole raft of people with some level of professional stake in our lives. And the caring professions, whilst admittedly attracting many sterling individuals who have no difficulty in seeing “the person rather than the impairment”, are also a magnet for those who get the wrong kind of kick out of “helping those less fortunate than themselves”. The fact that someone needs assistance with toileting has no bearing on whether they can make their own decisions about how to live their life. The role of personal assistants is (rather unsurprisingly) to assist. Not to assume that they are qualified to speak on behalf of the disabled person for whom they are working.
Clearly, there are some disabled people who, either by the nature of their impairments, or by virtue of their personality, are not – or are not always – equal to the task of fighting their own corner. But the same could be said of any minority group. And it doesn’t follow that people who are not from the group in question are the best choice to act as their advocates.
It could be you…
Yes, some are born disabled; some achieve disability, and some have disability thrust upon them. Nobody starts the day white and ends it black. Nobody starts the day as a man and ends it as a woman (well, not without planned gender-realignment surgery: it’s not going to be something that comes as a surprise). Nobody starts the day straight and ends it gay.
But every day people wake up without impairments and accidentally manage to acquire one before that day is over. Disability is no respecter of class or wealth.
That’s why we can amuse ourselves by describing people who don’t have impairments as “not yet disabled” – if there’s an equivalent term used by any other minority group to define the majority, I have yet to hear it.
And the fear of becoming disabled is another differentiating factor between disablism and e.g. racism. We’re everyone’s worst nightmare. Nobody wants to be reminded of the frailty of their own flesh or their own cognitive processes. So it’s much easier either to pretend that we don’t exist at all, or to pretend that “there’s nothing really wrong” with us. This, I have come to realise, is why people say, “Oh, but I don’t think of you as being disabled”, and expect us to take it as a compliment. It must be terrible to be in our position, surely? We couldn’t possibly be happy living with these tragic impairments? Well, I’d be the first to confirm that acquiring an impairment isn’t a walk in the park. But it’s not the end of the world, either. And it’s not something to be ashamed of.
Having said that, there’s something which needs to be borne in mind about disability equality. Even if discrimination against minorities is totally eradicated, we will still have to cope with the daily impact of our impairments. Our lives would be easier in many ways than they are now, but we’ll still have to live with our physical or mental functional loss or difference. That’s not going anywhere.
Disablism at work
It’s important to distinguish between being discriminated against at work because you’re disabled and the limitations imposed on you by your own impairment/s.
There are a lot of jobs I can’t do. That’s true of everyone. But there are a great many more jobs I can’t do since I acquired my impairments than there were before.
I’m in constant pain and my stamina is extremely limited. I can’t change that and my employer can’t change that. On the other hand, neither did my academic qualifications and professional skills disappear overnight when I injured my back.
I was once at a disability network meeting in which a senior member of staff (himself disabled) attempted to inject a little backbone (ha, ha) into the proceedings by telling those present that there’s nothing you can’t do if only you put your mind to it. Now, I appreciate that his motivation for saying this was a good one. He wanted disabled staff to have ambition for promotion and professional advancement. Unfortunately, though, what he said is nonsense. Can a blind person see if they really put their mind to it? Can a deaf person hear if only they try hard enough? There are a lot of things I physically cannot do and no amount of positive mental attitude is going to change that.
Tell a disabled member of staff that there’s nothing they can’t do if they just put their mind to it and you’re effectively both burdening them with the responsibility for “overcoming” their impairments and denying the existence of discrimination. Nice one. Frankly, it would have been a damned sight more useful if that same senior member of staff had spent his time telling his non-disabled junior colleagues about their obligations under the DDA. Discrimination doesn’t go away just because someone pretends it isn’t there.
To illustrate this point, I know someone with dyslexia who was told by a new manager that, if he couldn’t learn to write clearly within six months, he would find himself top of the list in the very next round of job cuts. It’s the same thought process. His manager mistakenly believes that he can write properly if he really tries. But the problem here is not one of a failure in will power. (And it’s not one of a lack of suitability for the job either. This man had been doing the same job perfectly well for years. The only thing that changed was that he got a new manager.) The fault lies squarely with that manager, and not with the member of staff. The manager is breaking the law by
a) refusing to make reasonable adjustment; and
b) treating an employee less favourably for reasons directly relating to his impairment.
The vast majority of workplaces are very badly in need of having their attitude towards disabled job applicants (external and internal) radically overhauled. Disabled people are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as their non-disabled peers . And that’s not a standard figure across the board – it varies according to type of impairment. If you have – or you have had – mental health problems, your chances of success when you apply for a job are lower than those of someone with a prison record.
What we don’t have figures for – because it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to undertake the necessary research – is the proportion of disabled people in employment who don’t rise to the level for which their skills make them suitable. Such knowledge as I have of the public sector would indicate that this is a major problem. But, while Google searches indicate any amount of research into the problems of getting disabled people into work, I have yet to find anything of note about the fact that, once we’re in work, we get mysteriously overlooked for promotion. Show me a senior member of staff who is disabled, and 99 times out of 100 I’ll show you someone who rose to that position before he or she became disabled.
A word about “reasonable adjustments”
The DDA obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments is not about paying a disabled person a decent wage for the privilege of sitting around all day and accomplishing nothing. It’s about appointing the best person for the job and then if
• the best person for the job happens to be disabled; and
• there are aspects of that job which that person finds difficult for reasons directly relating to his or her impairment,
making adjustments to minimise those difficulties. Those adjustments must be made. It’s the law. If they aren’t, the employer can find himself on the wrong end of an employment tribunal, as happened here.
However, equality in employment is about being paid for a job you can do, not for one you just happen to like the look of. Eradicating disability discrimination in the workplace doesn’t equate to every disabled person having an automatic right to a fascinating and fulfilling job. Non-disabled people don’t have that right, so why should we?
Equality is about having the fact that you have impairments taken out of the equation. If, once your employers have made the adjustments you need, you are shiftless and incompetent, then you must expect to be treated in exactly the same way as any other shiftless, incompetent member of staff. Don’t come running to me crying discrimination if you get found out.
Equality – be careful what you ask for
Whilst I will categorically refute any belief-system which holds that disabled people are inherently inferior to their non-disabled peers, I am equally unhappy with any suggestion that we are inherently superior. I don’t, for example, consider the concept of “Crip World Domination” to be helpful. Replacing (or even joking about replacing) one hierarchy with another has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with perpetuating the divisions in society (albeit by turning the current ones on their heads).
Achieving equality isn’t about being able to get away with metaphorical murder just because you happen to belong to a specific minority group.
In the utopian world of true equality, no-one will be judged on their race, religion, gender, sexuality or degree of impairment. And quite right too. Because these are the things we cannot change about ourselves. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that no-one will be judged, period. Removing the immutable characteristics from the equation will result in people being judged on who they are.
There are bad apples in every barrel, and one of the joys (to my mind) in achieving true equality will be that the bad apples are longer be able to hide behind accusations of discrimination.
To put it another way, I am personally acquainted with a fair few disabled people who are so unremittingly ghastly that, if I had the necessary turn of speed, I would cross the street to avoid them. That doesn’t, of course, prevent me from fighting for an end to disablism, because every disabled person deserves to be treated as a person, not to be automatically perceived as a useless and expensive drain on resources.
But I deplore any attempt to “play the crip card”. It’s manipulative and it’s inexcusable. By all means fight for the same rights as non-disabled people. Just remember that you’ll have to be prepared to take on the same responsibilities, too. And, if you’re an idle, shiftless, untrustworthy, incompetent, sententious, bombastic, vacuous, supercilious, dishonest waste of space who just happens to use a wheelchair/walking stick/guide dog/hearing aid/lithium etc, then be prepared for people to stop making allowances for the wheelchair/walking stick/guide dog/hearing aid/lithium etc and start realising what a nasty piece of work you really are.
I want to live in a world in which disabled people’s rights to education, employment, access, social inclusion, family life, self-determination, independence and health-care are not predicated on their level of impairment. In short, I want to live in a world where people with impairments aren’t disabled. The fact that this isn’t going to happen in my life-time – if at all – won’t stop me continuing to fight for it.
A trades union colleague of mine once said to me, “You’ve got to have a good sense of humour to negotiate in the equality arena”. He wasn’t kidding. Start actively fighting for an end to disablism, and you will be knocked back more times than you are successful. You will have to fight the same battles over and over again. Your efforts will often be unappreciated not only by those with whom you are trying to negotiate, but even by some of those on whose behalf you are campaigning. But when it works – on those rare occasions when it actually works – I promise you that you’ll remember why you started doing it in the first place.