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The collected opinions of an august and aristocratic personage who, despite her body having succumbed to the ravages of time, yet retains the keen intellect, mordant wit and utter want of tact for which she was so universally lauded in her younger days. Being of a generation unequal to the mysterious demands of the computing device, Lady Bracknell relies on the good offices of her Editor for assistance with the technological aspects of her journal.

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Location: Bracknell Towers

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The social model of disability

Being an article composed by the Editor for publication in her trade union periodical, intended to be read by persons who have no previous knowledge whatsoever of the social model. Reproduced here (suitably anonymised) in case it should be of interest to any of Lady Bracknell's readers, with the proviso that those who have been following this blog for some time may find parts of it remarkably similar to sentiments which have been published in these pages in the past.

[The Union] is committed to tackling discrimination against its members. But it can’t do that effectively unless it understands the true nature of the discrimination those members experience. When it comes to disability, this can be difficult. We are all – consciously or not – affected by media representations of disabled people as being either terribly brave, or objects of pity. And sometimes both at the same time. The traditional approach to disabled people is to think of us as having experienced personal medical tragedy, and as needing help to be made as “normal” as possible.

But increasing numbers of disabled people see attempts to change, 'fix' or 'cure' them, especially when it’s against their wishes, as discriminatory and prejudiced. It’s damaging to your self-esteem when you’re constantly being told that, on a very basic level, you’re not as good or as valuable as non-disabled people. Also, it is clearly not our medical conditions which place us at such a comparative disadvantage.

The social model of disability grew out of disabled people’s rejection of the way in which they were perceived by society. It distinguishes between two entirely separate elements of a disabled person’s experiences.

Firstly, we have impairments. We experience functional loss or difference. Of course, lots of people have some degree of functional loss, however minor. But they are only disabled if there is a negative social response to them because of that impairment. The DEMOS think tank came up with a very clear example of the point at which a particular impairment will result in disability, as follows:

“A person with impaired vision requiring reading glasses would not see themselves as disabled if they lived in the UK. But if they lived in a rural area of Africa they may well be, as they might have been excluded from a proper education and would find it more difficult to find employment.”

We live with the impact of our impairments every day. For some of us, that in itself is difficult and exhausting. But it’s not disability.

Disability is the negative interaction between people with impairments and the physical, environmental and attitudinal barriers in society which prevent their full inclusion in it. We are disabled and excluded because society doesn’t take full account of individual difference.

Still struggling to understand (or even care about) the difference between impairment and disability? And why that difference is important? Perhaps some examples will help:

Traditional/Medical Model
John can’t get into this building because he’s in a wheelchair.

Social Model
John is a wheelchair user. He’s disabled by the fact that this building doesn’t have a ramp or a lift.

There’s no point in inviting Susan to this meeting because she’s deaf, so she won’t be able to contribute.

Susan is disabled by the fact that the room we’re holding the meeting in doesn’t have an induction loop.

Damon can’t use this website because he’s blind.

Damon is disabled by the fact that this website doesn’t meet the legal accessibility requirements.

Linda can’t be given a job on the reception desk because she’s not what our visitors will want to see.

Linda is disabled by people’s attitudes towards facial disfigurement.

In each of these examples you can see that, according to the traditional approach to disability, the problem lies with the disabled person. The disabled person is different and doesn’t fit in. But if you look at the same examples from a social model perspective, the problem lies with the failure of the other people in the equation to make the necessary adjustments. In other words, disability is discriminatory behaviour towards people who have impairments. And that’s what the Disability Discrimination Act is designed to legislate against, and therefore what [the Union] is committed to fighting against. Not the fact that we have impairments, but the discrimination we experience because we have those impairments.

Language is important in all equality agendas, and disability is no different. Disability is something which happens to people with impairments, not something which is part of them. To those who agree that the social model of disability reflects their life experiences, the phrase “people with disabilities” means “people with social oppressions”: it’s simply illogical.

If all the barriers to our participation in society were removed, disability would cease to exist. We would still have impairments, but we wouldn’t be disabled. Just as, if negative attitudes towards gay people disappeared, homophobia wouldn’t exist.

The social model removes the stigma from self-identifying as a disabled person. Under the social model, describing yourself as disabled isn’t an admission of weakness: it’s recognition of the fact that you experience a form of discrimination which is deeply embedded in our society. And, of course, once you’ve identified where the problem lies, you can start to put together a strategy to tackle it.


Blogger Mary said...

I'm running into trouble with this... for the examples you give, there is an adjustment or piece of equipment that could reasonably and realistically be used which would remove the issue and enable a person with a given impairment to fully participate. Fair enough.

But sometimes, there doesn't seem to be a realistic adjustment that can be made. If you will forgive me for using the first personal example that comes to mind...

In my old job, I would regularly find myself participating in a meeting for two or three hours. These days I'd need to be having a Good Day to sit in one of those meetings for thirty minutes before having to go and lie down in a quiet room for thirty minutes. There's no special equipment that will make my concentration last longer. Would it be reasonable to make the meeting last twice as long by holding it in 30-minute stints, and provide a suitable room for me to rest on-site, just so I could participate, assuming that I happened to be having a good day on the day the meeting was scheduled?

10:50 am  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Firstly, I think it's dangerously over-simplistic to describe an adjustment as realistic just because the solution is an obvious one. Take John and his need for a ramp and a lift, for instance.

I'm involved with a small organisation which is currently located in an office which is completely innaccessible to wheelchair users. They don't employ any wheelchair users, but they are painfully aware that a) they would not be able to under their current circumstances and b) it's not at all unlikely that a wheelchair user would want to visit them. So they have been searching for affordable, accessible premises for more than two years. Without success.

They lease a couple of rooms in a large office building, and they don't have control over the overall compliance with Part III of the DDA.

Clearly, should a wheelchair user apply for a post with that organisation and be the best candidate, he or she would be given the job. But, even assuming AtW funding were granted, the solution would still not be straightforward. For instance, creating enough space in the tiny office for a wheelchair user to get around would almost certainly result in the need for larger premises to accommodate the same number of staff. This is a not-for profit organisation with charitable status, albeit one which is desperately concerned to comply with the DDA; fully subscribes to the social model of disability; and is hugely positive about the benefits of employing disabled people. How much less enthusiastic is the owner of a small business, who can barely make ends meet as it is, going to be about employing John?

Linda's solution would be (on the surface of things) cost-free to implement. There are no physical barriers to overcome. But very few commercial organisations would risk losing custom, regardless of how much they deplored the fact that their visiters were too uncomfortable to deal with a receptionist with a facial disfigurement. Ideological principles go to the wall when the profit and loss account is affected.

(Bear with me: I am getting to the point.)

An adjustment is only reasonable when it a) effectively reduces the disadvantage the disabled member of staff would otherwise experience, and b) doesn't have a seriously adverse impact on the viability of the employer.

In the example you quote, therefore, the solution you suggest might be reasonable, but it would depend on the circumstances. The bottom line is whether adjusting the meeting to accommodate you would affect profitability.

Now, if the other people at the meeting could go back to their own desks and be productive while you are resting, and if your employer had a spare room which could easily be converted into a rest area for you, and if, despite your need to lie down for half an hour, you could maintain your own productivity to a satisfactory level, then that might well be a reasonable adjustment in the particular circumstances of you, your job and that specific employer.

But the social model doesn't lose its validity just because your impairment impacts on you in ways which will make it difficult for you to work full-time regardless of what degree of adjustment can reasonably be made for you.

If your impairment is such that you are unable to earn a living, then it is very likely that you will experience disability as the result of peoples attitudes towards that fact. Whether people pity you, or see you as a charity case, or accuse you of being a scrounger they are failing to recognise you as being equal to them.

The social model recognises that impairments in and of themselves can be extremely difficult and exhausting to deal with. But what it highlights, and what it aims to break down, are the barriers in society which make living with those impairments harder than it needs to be.

The Editor

12:07 pm  
Blogger BloggingMone said...

The basic problem of the social model is that it is "social", in a sense of the whole society (= all of us) being involved. It demands a change of attitude in general. The medical model is much easier for those not having an impaiment. There are doctors dealing with that issues, meanwhile all I have to do is to feel pitty for those, who cannot be cured yet. In reward for that I can expect impaired people to be grateful. Those, who do not want to be cured are considered bitter and somehow strange. Of course they want to be "normal" if only they could, they just do not want to admit.
I am not talking against all kind of medical progress and I do understand that those who want to get rid of their impairment, whatever it takes, probably have a good reason to wish so, but it should be the impaired person's wish, not the pressure of society. Society should do its best to accept differences, which automatically would be leading to more inclusive and less disableing living conditions.
For the last years there has been a strong debate on whether or not giving tiny little babies, which were born deaf or with a severe hearing loss a Cochlear Implant. A social model in my point of view would be: OK, why not, but let us make sure that these kids also have access to Sign Language, to Interpreters and to the deaf community, because the CI may not work out for that particular kid and as we respect deaf people as much as we do hearing people, there can't be any harm done.
The medical model as it is still strongly favoured over here is different: parents are told that an implant is the only possiblity to live a normal life. Keep your child away from Sign Language, it will only mean that your child will be unneccessarily attracted by the deaf community. Your child will not have a real childhood and your family life will change drastically, as you have to practise hearing and speaking for hours and hours day after day. BUT: you will be rewarded with a "normal" child. Put your child into a school for hearing children, if that does not work, well...a school for the hard of hearing is still acceptable. If that does not work out - the school for the deaf is still there to take over the losers, who didn't make it.
This isn't sarcasm, this is reality. The number of frustrated parents and frustrated children is significant.
Needless to say that the Cochlear Implant is getting huge publicity and the average person is thinking that all deaf people simply have to be equipped with a CI to gain or re-gain perfect hearing. The deaf community is strictly arguing against this, claiming that they are basically very happy without being able to hear, but are told off and accused of being jealous, because there was no CI available when they were younger. Deaf parents refusing to have an Implant for their deaf child have already publicly being called criminals. It is up to society to stand up against such nonsense, rather then joining it.

2:31 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

Thank you, Mone. I really like your demonstration of why it is that the medical model is so appealing to the average non-disabled person.

In fact, I may have to quote you in the future!

The Editor

3:28 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

Thanks to the Editor for taking the time to give that thorough explanation, particularly those last few words: living with those impairments harder than it needs to be.

I think part of where I was losing the thread was in only thinking of it in terms of the workplace.

Another part is my own attitudes towards the effects of my impairment. If I cannot walk from one room of my flat to the other, I get annoyed with myself, comparing myself to what I used to be able to do and indeed to who I used to be. I fail to recognise myself who is ill as equal to myself who was fit, intelligent, good earnings, (modest too!), and start calling myself all names under the sun. But I didn't and don't think of anyone else I ever met with an impairment in that way.

Might have gone a bit off topic there. Therapy, stat!

4:44 pm  
Blogger Lady Bracknell said...

The original article uses mainly workplace-based examples because of its intended audience, but I can see how that emphasis could have inadvertently led you to concentrate on work issues as the be-all and end-all of the social model.

But it would be easy to come up with further examples relating to leisure activities, education, the right to marry and/or have children, etc, etc.

And I understand exactly where you're coming from with the issue of being harder on yourself (because you remember what you used to be able to do) than you are on other people with comparable impairments. With the result that you are effectively behaving towards yourself in a discriminatory manner.

Look no further than this recent post for a prime example...

5:39 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

No, audience or otherwise I do have a tendency to focus on the work thing - earning my own money and being a "useful member of society" was something that was really important to me back then, and I resent the loss of my career much more than, say, the loss of dancing or martial arts or all-nighter parties.

Yes, I remember that post...

9:23 pm  
Blogger facialanomaly said...

I am a new blogger who is writing a blog journal/novel about a youngman with severe scarring on his face. I have just posted the first installment and would like people to take a look.

10:30 pm  

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