Rights and Equality of Opportunity not help and sympathy

There are rights in place to help disabled people achieve equality of opportunity but often people’s attitudes stand in the way. To remove these barriers we first need to understand how these views and attitudes have been implemented in society, and what needs to be done to eliminate them.

“One in seven of the population has a disability and many experience problems in the workplace, in accessing everyday services, in education and transport.” (www.drc-gb.org)

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The World Health Organisation defines disability as:

‘Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.’

Whereas it may be normal for a 40 year old to run up a flight of stairs without panting would it be so for an 80 year old? So the question to be asked is whether the 80 year old is disabled by age or by the step builder?

Disability is more commonly defined as “a loss or restriction of functional ability or activity as a result of body or mind”. (Oxford English Dictionary) As a result of a definition like this disability is seen as a problem.

It has been widely accepted that disabled people generally have fewer opportunities and a lower quality of life than non-disabled people. Any action taken to remove the disadvantage suffered by disabled people depends on what is believed to be the cause.

There are two main ideas of what causes the disadvantage namely:

* the medical (or individual) model of disability,

* the social model of disability.

The medical model sees the inability of disabled people to join in society as a direct result of the impairment and not the result of the features of our society which can be changed. When individuals such as managers think in this way they concentrate on ‘compensating’ them for what is ‘wrong’ with their bodies.

According to this model the role of the professional is to assess the individual and help them function as near normal as is possible for them, to help them adapt psychologically and physically, to help them by treatment and rehabilitation to achieve the level of physical and intellectual functioning they are capable of. It also sees the professional as the expert. This model also controversially agrees with screening and termination of pregnancy to prevent a disabled child being born.

The social model of disability makes the crucial distinction between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’.

The social model sees disability as a result of the social and physical environment which creates unequal outcomes for people with impairments compared to able bodied people. The negative attitudes of professionals towards disabled people has led to discrimination and internalised oppression.

The social model has been developed by disabled people who feel that the individual model does not provide an adequate explanation for their exclusion from mainstream society. Within the social model the key definitions are:

Impairment – an injury, illness or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a long term effect on physical appearance and/or limitation of function within the individual that differs from the common place.

Disability – the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to social and environmental barriers.

The medical model of disability encourages explanations in terms of the features of the body’s limitations whereas, the social model encourages explanations in terms of the characteristics of society.

There are two unintended consequences that as a result of using the medical model of disability. Firstly the medical model says that the person’s disability effects their day-to-day activities but it doesn’t take into account how social factors effect their daily routine i.e. ability to walk has an impact and is recognised by this model but so does inaccessible transport which is not recognised by this model. Secondly the medical model appears to state that it is ‘normal’ to see, speak and hear but by omitting activities such as British Sign Language and Braille it theoretically labels them as ‘abnormal’.

Disability quite often becomes a taboo subject because people are not sure how to act or what to say when a person with a disability is present. Quite often people just ignore the issue and talk to anyone but the person with the disability. Such attitudes are not the result of deliberate unkindness. They are more likely to be based on feelings of ‘sympathy’, when a child is disabled the feelings of sympathy are directed not only at the child but at the parents. This results in the child being marginalised as second best rather than being treated as equal.

Psychologist and sociologist research has quite often pointed out that these attitudes come about from stories old and new. (Disability: a psychologist’s view) We all know the story of King Arthur, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. One seat remained unfilled at the table which was the perilous seat in which it was fatal for any man to sit except for the perfect knight. When a perfectly formed knight came, Lancelot dubbed him immediately as his bodily perfection would be matched by his spiritual perfection. He sat in the chair unharmed and the rest is irrelevant. The point is that his perfect body was the key to his acceptance. We might also note in passing that the perfect knight was also white, and male, and young. The same pattern continues with heroes and villains. By contrast pirates in long john silver and captain hook had missing limbs.

The association is deeply ingrained: Caliban, the Ugly Sisters, The Cyclops, and even today children continue to make that link.

There are different types of barriers. The barriers which disable people with impairments can be:

* Prejudice and stereotypes

* Inflexible organisational procedures and practices

* Inaccessible information

* Inaccessible buildings; and,

* Inaccessible transport

It is worth understanding that language also forms a barrier. Fears of the able-bodied about ‘getting it wrong’ are increased by the fact that language is a dynamic process, and what was considered all right a few years ago such as the term ‘the handicapped’ is no longer acceptable. Yet such a term however is acceptable if it applies to the successful, dominant section of society; ‘the rich’ doesn’t get changed to ‘people who have riches’

Disabling barriers experienced in the past can continue to have an adverse effect today. An example of this may be those people that attended segregated schools who may have gained lower academic qualifications than their non-disabled peers, simply because their ‘special’ school failed to provide them with a mainstream curriculum. These barriers have nothing to do with the disabled people’s restrictions; they are put there by people and can therefore be removed. You can take a social approach to disability by identifying and correcting those barriers in place that are within your control.

Discriminating practice has a huge impact on people. According to Maslow’s analysis of human needs as seen in FIG. 1 it can be damaging to the individual quality of life.