Society and Disabled People

Background and History

Even if we briefly examine the history of disabled people in Britain, the roots of discrimination and the causes of social exclusion are easy to see.

Historically, disabled people have had different roles in different cultures.

Some tribal and other cultures believe that disabled people are powerful, mystical or to be venerated, being chosen by or touched by the hand of the gods.

The Greeks and Romans, however, took a different view.

With their veneration of physical and mental perfection they saw any form of impairment, whether physical or mental as a tragedy or a curse. They attributed this to a punishment, delivered by the gods for some sort of wrongdoing or shortcoming.

Modern Western culture, which relies heavily on the classics for information and education has always tended towards the second view. If you look at everything from fairy stories to James Bond films, from charity advertisements to the Olympics, you will usually see disabled people presented in one of three ways:

  • A weak, helpless victim – someone who suffers from a terrible tragedy and is helpless or powerless without our support, an object of pity, something to be avoided at all costs. For example, Tiny Tim in Charles DickensÕ A Christmas Carol
  • A sinister figure to be distrusted or even feared. Literature and the media are littered with such figures – Captain Hook, wheelchair using villains in James Bond films and the psychotic serial killers beloved of modern thrillers are just a few examples. From our earliest years we are assailed with witches, giants and dwarves, all presented as evil beings
  • The superhero. This view of disabled people shows them as overcoming the apparently insurmountable barriers that their tragic condition places upon them, through superhuman acts of will and feats of endurance they finally win through in the end. This view beloved of TV documentaries is epitomised by the true story of World War Two flying ace Douglas Bader who continued to fly planes, get girls and even escape from prison camps despite not having any legs.

The Disabled Peoples’ Movement

In Britain the disabled people’s movement came into being in the late 1970s and 1980s. It came hard on the heels of the American disabled people’s movement which had seen Vietnam veterans, who were young, educated and physically impaired, fight and win a full bill of Civil Rights. Today there are many organisations and Coalitions, the most notable perhaps being the United Kingdom’s Disabled People’s Council and Disability Wales. The main function of all these organisations is to counter oppression, prejudice and discrimination in all its forms and to strive for equality of access and opportunity for disabled people. This desire for inclusion in all aspects of life can be summed up by the slogan, “Nothing About Us, Without Us”.

Models of Disability

Models of disability are ways of understanding and responding to disability. They describe the theory of what happens in practice in the lives of disabled people, and were written up by disabled people, to help society to understand their oppression and the changes which are needed. The medical model is society’s traditional view, which leads to the disempowerment and segregation of disabled people, and offers no way forward for change. The social model encourages society to view disabled people as equal with non-disabled people – with rights rather than needs, and differences rather than problems. It asks society to change in order to accommodate disabled people, and points out that a society which is more inclusive of disabled people will be a better place for everyone.

The Medical Model

Historically, disabled people have paid a heavy price for being seen as either tragic victims or sinister figures to be feared and avoided. It has led to segregation in terms of upbringing, housing, education and employment. Disabled people have been and are still among the poorest in this country. Unemployment amongst disabled adults of working age currently stands at around 50% and many disabled people still lead lives of segregation and isolation.

The medical model works by responding to a person’s impairment from a medical point of view. The first option is to attempt to cure the person, to make them just like everyone else. The second option is treatment to make the person as much like everyone else as possible – e.g. operations on children with Down’s Syndrome to make them look as if they don’t have Down’s. If these fail, the third option is to provide ‘care’, which is usually segregated, and does not provide the quality of life that non-disabled people expect.

Changes to make life generally more accessible and inclusive are seen as doing something ‘extra’ and are often viewed with distrust or even anger at the cost. Disabled people themselves, who are angry about inequality, discrimination and the barriers that they face are often seen as troublemakers or as having chips on their shoulders.

The Charity Model

Charities historically began by seeking to do something about the terrible conditions in which many people in Britain lived. They used the wealth of the few to seek to better the lives of the many with the result that benefactors received honours, privilege and power for their generosity and disabled people themselves were lucky and owed a debt of gratitude for the charity bestowed upon them.

The modern charity tries to break away from this old-fashioned image. It often uses the idea of the disabled person as a superhero who usually (with a little help from the charity!), overcomes terrible trials and tribulations to lead a happy empowered life. Charities’ language is littered with words and phrases such as “brave”, “plucky”, “generous”, “kind”, “helping people live a better life” and other buzz words of the minute.

The Social Model – A New Way of Thinking

The Social Model of Disability was defined by disabled activists in the 1970s and 80s, who saw the need for disabled people to start taking control over their own lives.

The Social Model gives us a new way of thinking and a tool to make change happen. It separates “impairment” from “disability”:

Impairments are the medical conditions which people have.

Disability is the restriction placed on the lives of people with impairments, because they live in a society which does not take account of their requirements.

It works like this:

Impairment – is the “what’s wrong with us” bit. Impairments can be minor or severe, single or multiple, temporary or long-term. Impairments know no barriers. It doesn’t matter what your age, gender or ethnic background is, or how rich you are, you can get an impairment. We acquire impairments through, trauma, accident, genetics, illness, ageing and many other ways.

Disability is different – It is the barriers in society that cause the problems and disable people. There are many barriers in society that prevent disabled people from having equal choices.

  • physical or environmental – ones that we can touch or see
  • social or attitudinal – the way people think and act
  • organisational, financial and even emotional

Examples in the arts might be lack of accessible parking spaces, cinema without subtitles or audio description, publicity in tiny print on glossy paper, a workshop delivered at top speed and full of jargon, the organisation which assumes that disabled people are incapable of participating – let alone being employed.

It is important to remember that people can not change – our impairments are not going to just disappear. But the barriers can all be taken away, and if our society is fully accessible, then nobody will be disabled. If we use the social model as a tool for change, we can have a real impact on the accessibility of the arts.

Nobody will expect you to give a slick description of the Social Model at the drop of a hat. What matters is an understanding that people may have different ways of accessing things, but by working together, we can make huge changes for the better. Every single thing you do to improve access will make a difference!

Further reading

United Kingdom’s Disabled People’s Council’s website

Disability Wales’ website

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