Archive for the ‘ disability models ’ Category

An Intersectional Look At The Social Model

Today I want to look at the social model of disability and primarily how closely it intersects (overlaps) with feminist theory.

“In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.” UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation) statement from 1975

The Social Model in a nut shell

The social model of disability states that people with impairments are disabled not by their impairments (as the medical model states) but that they are disabled by the directly & indirectly inaccessible world we live in. The key to understanding the social model is understanding how impairments are different from disability. Within the social model any medical condition is called an impairment – a chronic health condition, a amputation, a denigrative disease, a mental health disorder, being non-neurological, a genetic condition or anything else that causes a body &/or mind to deviate from the “norm”. A impairment can have a variety of effects on a person which take varying amounts of energy to cope with. Some may barely notice an impairment others may feel it’s presence constantly and often overwhelmingly.

As mentioned in the quote above, disability is something imposed on top of those impairments. It’s being given a wheelchair to use but not being able to get it into shops because of poor accessibility. It’s being looked over for a job because of societal stigma about mental health. It’s being expected to live below the poverty line and lie for 12 hours daily in your urine because society thinks you don’t deserve more.

How does that all intersect with feminism?

One of the ideas in the social model is that because people with impairments do not fit our societies idea of normality they are treated less favourably, oppressed and forced out by society. This is done by stigmatising people with impairments, institutionalising them, sterilising them, refusing to educate them, abusing them, euthanising them and perniciously by ignoring them.

A quote from Rosemarie Garland-Thompson will hopefully tie this up;

“Female, disabled and dark bodies are supposed to be dependant, incomplete, vulnerable, and incompetent bodies. Femininity and race are performances of disability. Women and the disabled are portrayed as helpless, dependant, weak, vulnerable and incapable bodies.”

Feminism has long argued that the world we live in is a Patriarchy where overwhelmingly the voices of people in power are male because societal norms, values and cultures are set up to favour them. Being “male” becomes the norm which “female” bodies deviate from. In this way the oppression women face (as well as that faced by black & minority ethnic/ people of colour and LGBTIQ people is) comes from a similar place. Whilst the effects obviously vary, we are oppressed by not meeting the hidden arbitrary societal norm.

There are lots of ways that both feminist and disability issues intersect and that arguments from both sides can be strengthened if they are looked at together. I’ll give a example now by looking at one way that medicalisation of “difference to the normal” has been used to as a tool of oppression.

We can see  the normal actions and behaviours of female bodies have been pathologised throughout history because they deviate from the masculine norm. They have been thought of as hysterical, over/under indulgent, intellectually impaired and a host of other things. Today feminist theory would argue that the unnecessary medicalisation of the normal effects of hormones for example has been used as a social (and physical) tool to oppress women. We see the same when we look at how people with bodily differences are labelled as defective, deficient, freaks, subnormal, pitiable, eternally child-like, incapable and so on. Disability rights activists argue that impairments are normal and natural things which shouldn’t be automatically associated with any of the words listed previously. The same way that feminists would rightly argue that calling a woman who is publicly experiencing emotions as defective (hysterical) is problematic the same can be said about those who label those who were born with one foot as defective (cripples).

By looking at these issues together, and going further to include racial, trans* and sexuality critiques we start moving towards the the root of the issue; the oppression of those who deviate from a hidden ideal of normality (commonly thought to be a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, non-disabled man). 

Belated BADD Post – What’s Your Excuse?

In any week I’ll see at least one picture of a disabled person doing ‘something’, often exercising, emblazoned with the caption “What’s your excuse?” or something similar. Here are some examples;

A picture of a quadruple amputee lifting weights with the caption “No excuses”
A before and after becoming a body builder picture of an amputee with the caption “Excuses. Let’s hear yours again”
Young boy, a double above the knee amputee with running blades, running with the caption “Your excuse is invalid”
This one has been doing the rounds again recently on facebook. A picture  of a double just below the knee amputee  using prosthetics rock-climbing. Normally shared with the caption “What’s your excuse?”

I hate, hate, hate these memes and I think you should have a problem with them too. “Why?” I hear you cry! “These pictures celebrate the achievement of overcoming disability/adversity! They are a force for good!”. Well I don’t agree, and because this is my blog and I’m writing this post I’m going to tell you exactly why I don’t agree.

They assume people reading are non-disabled.
These messages all seem aimed at non disabled people which is an issue in itself. It shows that on some level they are “othering” disabled people. Here disabled people are inspiration, not audience. If you want to build a world where disabled people are treated as equals then that’s not the way to do it.
If, on the other-hand, it’s not assuming that it’s audience is non-disabled then that’s also a issue. These things are really insulting to disabled people who for one reason or another can’t just pop out and climb a mountain and they place undue pressure on disabled people to conform to some heroic ideal. I’m going to talk more about these things in the rest of the post.

They forget there are many vaild reasons people can’t do those things.
Money. All of us have to grapple with the cost of getting to venues, paying entrance fees/membership and buying equipment which is often prohibitively expensive. If you are disabled then extra costs like adapted prosthetics  mobility equipment  care also cost a lot of money. A decent all terrain electric wheelchair is at least £15,000, then you need a specialist car or a trailer to move it in… It all adds up to quite a lot before you factor in the costs of powerful, safe to use grappling hooks and strong rope so you can try your hand at mountain climbing.
Time. Turns out disabled people work and have social commitments, go figure. Finding the time to train to a high level isn’t easy.
Location. I’m telling you now that even from a UK perspective a disabled person in London has a better chance of finding a local accessible gym than a disabled person living in the rural Scottish highlands.
Opportunity. It’s great that some people know the right people or get lucky with charity support, but they are the exception to the rule.
Disability, yeah I went there. An amputee with running blades may well be able to run 200m. I, as a non-amputee with chronic pain who cannot walk 30m without being sick simply cannot run 200m, and as it stands will not be able to run 200m in the foreseeable future. I could do it in my wheelchair but that’s not the message. The message is that just using a wheelchair isn’t good enough, you need to go beyond that to be “normal” and to fully overcome disability.

These pictures often forget that disability is a social not medical construct.
Most of us, the UN included subscribe to the social model of disability or a variant of that. The social model states that disability is the result of having an impairment in an inaccessible society. In simpler terms it says being an amputee isn’t what disables a person, it’s not being able to access good prosthetics, wheelchairs, aids, adaptations, education, employment and health care. It’s living in a society that on a institutional level thinks disabled people aren’t as capable, moral, ‘normal’ as the rest of us. These pictures forget that to be in the position the young boy is, running on a good track, with expensive running blades one has to have a certain amount of social privilege.  As this article explains, blade running isn’t the reality for most amputees.

Disabled people are not there to inspire you.
It may surprise you but when I personally go down to the gym, swimming pool or even supermarket I’m not doing it to inspire non-disabled onlookers and to send a message that disabled people who aren’t doing the same just aren’t trying. I’m just living my life and doing what I want to. The same way you taking a trip to the shops isn’t a statement other than “Hey, I need some milk so I’m going to buy some.”

These just feed the “super-crip” stereotype.
The “super-crip” stereotype is fairly well known in disability circles, but if you don’t know it I’ll quickly explain. When disabled people are not being held up as objects of pity (see messages like “this poor girl suffers hourly with her impairment, sending £5 will help us do what we can to put a smile back on her face”) they are often held up as “hero’s” who strive to overcome their disability. Those that “overcome” their disability by doing something that disabled people aren’t supposed to do – like sport, high level exercise, having a high powered job, smiling daily, sometimes just going outside and talking to people – are lauded as super-beings. Of course disability isn’t that simple. It’s not a case that we are all hero’s nor are we all objects of pity. We can be both or neither or, frequently, a huge mix of everything in between. Just like non-disabled people. Yes we have access issues, yes sometimes our lives have more challenges than non-disabled peoples but that doesn’t make us hero’s for just getting on with our lives. In fact by assuming it does it either suggests that you buy into the myth disability is miserable or that disabled people just aren’t as good as non-disabled people. Which brings me onto my final point…

They assume non-disabled people are better than disabled people.
The basic message is “If a disabled person can do it then anyone (and I mean anyone) can!”. Do you see people putting up pictures of Usain Bolt saying if one non-disabled person can win an Olympic gold then any non-disabled person can? No. Why? Because it would be a stupid statement to make. Clearly, given all the people who fail to win an Olympic gold every year it’s not that easy. We, as an audience, allow Bolt to have personal skill, talent and dedication to his sport above and beyond the levels the majority of us have and we celebrate him for that. We don’t feel the need to use him as inspiration porn in the same manner we do disabled athletes. Why? Because it’s hard to believe we could be better than Usain Bolt if we tried. Whilst apparently it’s not hard to imagine we could be better than a disabled athlete, because at the end of the day, on some level we simply don’t think disabled people are as good as non-disabled people.

That is why I don’t like these things. They are insulting, ignorant and they prop up damaging myths about disability.

Working Together Under The UN CRPD (Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities)

I went to Manchester yesterday and attended a seminar run by the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) all about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UN CRPD, or CRPD). It was really enlightening and taught me exactly how the CRPD could and couldn’t be used. I have decided to start with this post which aims to briefly summarise the basics of what I discovered. Hopefully I can get some more detailed posts written later to expand on everything.

1. What the CRPD is:

Certain groups, like children, women & disabled people are seen to face greater barriers when ensuring their human rights are met globally. A number of conventions have been drawn up to supplement the basic declaration of Universal Human Rights written by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948; one of these is the CRPD. There are no “new rights” or “different rights” for disabled people included. The CRPD simply sets new standards and contextualises how to ensure equality for disabled people all over the world.

It is based on the social model of disability which suggests disability is the result of people with impairments being discriminated against by socially constructed barriers, be they direct or indirect in nature.

The UK signed the CRPD in 2006 (which means the UK said it agreed with the convention) then in 2009 it ratified it (which means it made a commitment to implementing it). This places the following obligations on the Government (which they coordinate through the Office for Disability Issues, ODI) ;

  • Ensure disabled people have protection from all forms of discrimination including failure to make reasonable adjustments
  • Pass new laws and make policies where appropriate
  • Abolish or change laws and practices that discriminate against disabled people
  • Take account of disabled peoples’ human rights in its practices and programmes in advance, not retroactively (sometimes called ‘mainstreaming’)
  • Collect and disseminate data and statistics in accordance with article 33 (this is to act as a qualitative measure of progress and to aid in improved policy development)
  • Ensure public authorities comply with the convention
  • To report to the UN Disability Committee in Geneva every few years to update them on it’s progress and any problem areas. The first report was done in 2011 (read it here) and the next is due in 2015, then one is due every 4 years.

2. What it is not:

It is not law. If someone breaches the CRPD then they haven’t broken a law. Fortunately there are many laws in the UK that cover the same things as the CRPD so that there can be legal recourse. For example if someone abuses a disabled person they would not be arrested for violating article 16, but they could be arrested under the Equalities Act and/or for other crimes such as harassment/criminal damage/causing bodily harm. The prosecution could then be strengthened by it also being a violation of the CRPD as judges are allowed to consider the CRPD when ruling in cases.

3. How it can be used to improve the rights of disabled people in the UK:

  • When successful prosecutions are strengthened by the CRPD it sets legal precedent, or case law. The more case law is built up around the CRPD the harder it becomes for people to ignore it.
  • The government, public bodies and local authorities all have committed to the standards in the CRPD which means that they can be used to point out to organisations where they are falling short on equality commitments.
  • As well as applying pressure on the government internally (via MPs, voting, national media, protests etc..) we can use it to apply pressure on the government externally (via suggestions & pressure or even condemnation from the UN). The government has to report to the UN on its CRDP progress every 4 years, but as you can imagine they often paint an unduly positive picture of their work. We can counter this by preparing Shadow Reports to feed back to the UN. 
To stop this post becoming a monster I’ve put up another post with details of the rights of disabled people here. A fun (and by fun I mean very depressing) game you can play is counting all the ways the Welfare Reform Bill and cuts to the provision of services for disabled people violates the CRPD the UK ratified less than 5 years ago!
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