The disability question

Dealing with disability requires resources, not rights.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

With all the excitement of the Labour and Tory party conferences, you could be forgiven for having missed the third major political event of the fortnight: the UK Disabled People’s Parliament (UKDPP), which met in Birmingham last weekend.

It might not have the sex appeal of IDS’ personality or Teresa May’s shoes, but the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP), which organised this parliament, boasts more members than the Tories (at least, it claims to represent 400,000 disabled people), and its policies are infinitely more ambitious. Forget those stereotypical disability issues of ramps and hearing aids: this meeting was designed to work out the details of a ‘rights and freedoms bill’, which would include ‘the right to a sex life and a publicly recognised relationship’, and ‘the right to be born and the right to be alive’. (1)

The rhetoric makes for good soundbites. But what does any of it actually mean? How has the issue of disability turned from a practical question of how to ameliorate the problems faced by people with physical or mental impairments to a legal-philosophical debate about values, discrimination and ‘the right to a sex life’?

As society has become better at treating or even eradicating certain disabilities, and at helping disabled people to play a fuller, more independent role in society, a strange thing has happened. Disability has been turned from an impairment into a political identity. ‘When I use the word “disabled” about myself, I am making a political statement’, wrote Andy Rickell, director of the BCODP, in an article for the Guardian promoting the conference (2).

And as disability has come to be seen as political, dealing with disability has become less about help and resources, and more about attitude and recognition. ‘I have an impairment’, continues Rickell, ‘but my disability arises from the discrimination I suffer because society fails to take full account of my rights and creates barriers to my full inclusion.’ Disability, in a sense, is the new black – and the disability lobby is the new civil rights movement.

It should be noted that, despite its grand title, the UK Disabled People’s Parliament seems like a fairly marginal affair, even within the disability movement. There were 70 people at the conference; and as an astute letter to the Guardian by Thomas Larque, a disabled man from Kent, pointed out: ‘I am…sceptical about an organisation calling itself “the UK Disabled People’s Parliament”. It suggests a democracy, but like many such bodies, the UKDPP seems likely to be made up only of self-appointed activists.’ (3)

However, it should also be noted that this gathering included the disability minister, Maria Eagle, and the chairman of the Disability Rights Commission. Beyond the confines of the Birmingham conference, the view of disability-as-identity, and the emphasis on rights and respect, is shared not only across the disability movement, but also by the government and many other actors in mainstream politics.

‘Our aim is that disabled people achieve equality – a society in which we are as valued and have the same human and civil rights as everyone else’, wrote the trustees of Scope, the charity for people with cerebral palsy, in response to Rickell’s accusations that the mainstream disability charities are ‘an institutional reminder of the attitude that disabled people are charity cases’ (4).

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC), a body set up by the UK parliament to ‘eliminate discrimination against disabled people and promote equality of opportunity’, argues that ‘disabled people face massive discrimination and exclusion’ and has set itself ‘the goal of “a society where all disabled people can participate fully as equal citizens”’ (5). Meanwhile, the government’s disability website, headed by Maria Eagle, minister for disabled people, states that: ‘We want to help you find out about your rights as a disabled person, and to learn more about the legislation that exists to help establish fully comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people in the UK.’ (6)

The notion that disability is a question of ‘civil rights’ has become so mainstream that it is unquestioned. But this idea makes no sense. The struggle for rights has historically been led by sections of society who are perfectly capable of playing an equal role in society to everybody else, but who have been denied the ability to do so for political reasons. The working class fought for the right to vote on the principle of political equality, and women, ethnic groups and homosexuals fought for the right to be treated equally to white men, on the grounds that there was no natural reason to treat them any differently.

By contrast, individuals with a physical or mental impairment are different – and as such, they deserve not to be treated just like everybody else. Plenty can be done to help disabled people transcend the limitations imposed by their disability, but this involves providing disabled people with extra resources to enable them to participate more fully in mainstream society. This is about special treatment – the very opposite to equal rights.

There should be nothing controversial about this. A civilised society should do what it can to enable disabled people to play as full a role as possible – which precisely means not leaving them alone with their equal rights, but providing extra technical and human resources to enable them to get around the difficulties posed by their disability. From hearing aids to wheelchairs to special schools, the latest technology and the most flexible solutions should be available to individuals to help mitigate the effects of their particular disabilities.

Yet bizarrely, many of those in the disabled lobby actively argue against such sensible, practical solutions. Rather than focusing on practical ways to help disabled people play a role in mainstream society, the rights-based approach is a political demand for mainstream society to adapt itself around the myriad needs of disabled people.

The basis of this approach is what is known as the ‘social model of disability’, a theory developed in the 1970s and which gains more resonance as the years go by. This is the notion that people are not disabled by their particular physical or mental impairment, but by the fact that society is organised around the needs of able-bodied people. As the BCODP’s website puts it: ‘We believe that our disability arises from society’s negative treatment of us; it is not an inevitable consequence of our impairments.’ (7)

With its emphasis on discrimination, the upshot of this theory is a disability policy that focuses on political gestures over genuine practical measures. It attempts to wish away the differences between disabled people and the able-bodied, by pretending that these differences do not exist. So there is a major focus on the need to portray more disabled people, whether in government advertising or popular culture, doing more active things (including working, playing sports or talking about having sex). There is heavy emphasis on the need for a positive language about disability – for example, those who cannot walk are not ‘wheelchair bound’, but ‘wheelchair users’, because their wheelchair liberates them. Never mind the fact that there is actually very little negative imagery of disabled people today – and there is certainly no anti-disabled lobby in politics.

There seems like a clear contradiction here – if disabled people are just like everybody else, and capable of living life to the full, why should society feel compelled to put any effort into giving them more resources or special treatment? But the social model of disability has an answer for this, too. The aim is to eliminate the need for special treatment, by making the whole of society operate around disabled people’s needs. In the words of the BCODP: ‘society must be changed to allow our full inclusion.’ (8)

Whether it’s wheelchair-friendly buses or ramps to public buildings, disabled-friendly internet design or lifts on the London Underground, the attempts to adapt mainstream society around disabled people’s needs are highly visible. The disabled lobby complains that not enough has been done, and will no doubt continue to do so until there are disabled toilets in the smallest of cafes. But while, of course, there are very good reasons for having ramps in public buildings and so on, the attempt to create a totally disabled-access society looks less like a practical way to help people with disabilities than a political gesture born out of low expectations.

The argument that society should be organised as if everybody was disabled is no good for disabled people, who have all kinds of different needs that cannot all be provided for by blanket access policies. Rather than forcing disabled people to struggle with public transport, for example, there are surely more flexible solutions to help them get around – which might require more of the state’s money, thought and imagination, but so what? Disabled people need real discrimination to improve their lives, not politically motivated soundbites about civil rights.

As for the rest of us: you cannot have a civilised and progressive society organised around the assumption that we are all disabled and need access. A dynamic society should push its institutions and citizens forward, to achieve more than they already can, rather than holding back because certain sections might find themselves excluded. Using progress in science, medicine and technology to enable disabled people to play a greater role in mainstream society is both a positive aspiration and an achievable goal. Adapting every aspect of society to remove all the challenging elements is neither.

Furthermore, the notion that disability is a question of civil rights is thoroughly degrading to the concept of rights. Rights are political equalities that need to be fought for and exercised. The disability lobby’s version, by contrast, presumes that rights are perks that government ministers and local councils should grant to individuals, because they cannot exercise the rights that they have.

The promiscuous use of the term ‘rights’ employed by the likes of the UKDPP renders the concept both meaningless and divisive. ‘The right to a sex life and a publicly recognised relationship’ implies that disabled people are banned from having sex or intimate partners, which they are not; ‘the right to be born and the right to be alive’ comes into direct conflict with a woman’s right to have an abortion because of fetal abnormality: something that has been a major step in achieving women’s equality.

There is nothing to be gained by turning disability into a divisive kind of identity politics. Rather, we should focus again on the practicalities of disability, and doing what we can to overcome those real barriers to ‘inclusion’.

(1) Disabled ‘parliament’ calls for freedoms, Geoff Adams-Spink, BBC News, 4 October 2003

(2) Our disability is political, Andy Rickell, Guardian, 1 October 2003

(3) Disabled people’s wider constituency, Guardian letters, 6 October 2003

(4) Disabled people’s wider constituency, Guardian letters, 6 October 2003

(5) Disability Rights Commission

(6) UK government Disability website

(7) British Council of Disabled People

(8) British Council of Disabled People

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Topics Politics


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