Impairment – Not Such A Dirty Word…

A question for any disabled readers – or readers with disabilities (and one day there’ll be a blog entry on how much self-righteous bollocks that whole argument is) – that I’d love to know your answer to…

Have you ever discussed your impairment with another disabled person?

I use the word impairment quite deliberately here.  Because in doing so, I’m making a tiny jab at the overbearing dogma that is the British take on the social model of disability.  If you felt your hackles rise and your pulse quicken when you read the word impairment – then good.  Because you prove my point.

One of the major plusses of the social model, is that in placing the burden of responsibility for disability upon society – it empowers disabled people because it removes the notion of blame for their condition from themselves and their families.  Disability is no longer a matter of shame, guilt or of religious sins of the parents or of previous incarnations of the individual.  It is a matter of society needing to put it’s house in order so that disabled people can go about their lives in just the same way as everyone else.  Above all, it drives home the point that there is nothing wrong with disability.

Pay attention to that word wrong.  It is of course correct to say that there is nothing wrong with disability.  Disabled people have just as much value, humanity, creativity, industry, love, whatever else – as their abled peers.  Because of this, people must be treated equally, fairly and with the respect they deserve.  That does not mean that people are not different.  The disability community in the UK, too often seems to confuse the line ‘There’s nothing wrong with disability’ with ‘There’s nothing different about disability’.  And this is nonsense.  It’s perfectly fine to say that disability is caused in very large part by the disabling nature of society.  The lack of sufficient access, facilities and opportunities, the cultural prejudices and biases around disability – these are all major if not the main causes of disability today.  But it is untrue to say that that is the whole story – which is what too many people seem to think.  If only we could get rid of these barriers and glass ceilings they seem to say, then disability would be a redundant factor.  And while laudable I do not believe this to be so.  Remove all these barriers and I still can’t run, I still can’t ceilidh, I can’t do a handstand or a cartwheel.  The impairment still exists and has to be worked around.  This is not a negative in itself, but too many disabled people seem unwilling to discuss this openly – what does it mean to be disabled?

I was in conversation with someone about this the recently and they offered a counter-argument I’ve heard many times before, so I suspect that some of you are already forming it.  If we could remove the barriers and prejudices and make accessible alternatives as valid and accepted – wouldn’t that be enough?

This is an excellent question – and I’ll answer it this way.  Although two people may reach the same outcome and result, they don’t necessarily do it the same way – so to say they are the same because the outcome is the same is foolish.  An amputee may have a prosthetic leg and may walk perfectly normally, but we wouldn’t say that it was the same as having the original limb.  The difference in experience and means should be accepted.  It doesn’t mean that either one is better, but to disregard the difference seems to be burying one’s head in the sand.  Even if we could make wheelchair dancing as accepted artistically and culturally as it’s abled counterpart, the experience and physicality would still be significantly different.  Again, this doesn’t make it wrong – but it is different.

In driving so hard at the societal barriers and disabling factors of our culture, we have created a situation where impairment is mentioned nowhere except in the doctor’s office or the hospital.  I have asked friends with disabilities, who are activists, trainers and educators about impairment since it started becoming problematic for me.  The response has been overwhelmingly, “I’m having these conversations in private, but nobody talks about it openly”.

That is telling.  We’re in a disability culture where people take pride in disability, by doing all the things that their abled peers do.  There’s pride to be had in that, and that achievement should be celebrated and encouraged.  But that’s not really taking pride in disability.  it’s becoming more and more a competition about who can be disabled as little as possible.  It’s becoming more and more a matter of making the impairment cease to exist culturally.  It is too often as Donna Reeve would put it, conforming to the ableist norm.  Impairment is the biggest taboo for the disability community.  I put it to you, that we as a community need to talk more and more about what our impairments are, and what they mean for us as people.  This does not and should not have to be a pity party, but the current narrative seems to want to deal with disability by making it not be there.

I put it to you that we need to take ownership of our impairments, rather than waiting for that façade to break down.  We are different.  That is not wrong.  So why are we so afraid to say so?


5 thoughts on “Impairment – Not Such A Dirty Word…

  1. Another thought-provoking piece. Thank you.

    Thinking about the word “impairment”- yes, my hackles rose. Changing the vocabulary doesn’t make a disability go away. In schools, we’ve had “educationally subnormal” and “retarded” within my lifetime. “Special Needs” has been turned into the playground insult, “Special”. So you are right that vocabulary can be revealing, but also that changing it doesn’t change attitudes.

    I think I might disagree with you about disabled people aspiring to do things abled peers do.Why shouldn’t they, if they want to? Part of the reason for me feeling this way is that personally I have never aspired to sporting success in spite of being outwardly “abled”. I just don’t have that drive to win, especially at anything involving hitting a ball accurately with a hard object, but also at anything involving gasping for breath. So the desire to meet physical challenges has different intensity in all of us. You could say my competitive spirit was impaired: I just don’t care enough about winning.

    I wonder if something could be set up against stigma which included paralympians as well as the less ambitious, along the lines of the Stonewall campaign: “I’m disabled. Get over it.”?

    Good luck and keep writing!


      1. I think we live in a world where disabled people are pathologised constaly. We’re in TV programs about our bodies, people run marathons for our diseases and we’re medicalised constantly.
        As one of those annoying british social model purists, I absolutely believe my body is not to blame for the lack of access I have to the world around me. I want the conversation to be centered around what my access requirements are and how people can best support disabled people rather than about my body. I find people’s attitudes to asking truly disgusting, there is more and more a freak show culture where people feel freedom to ask horribly personal questions about my body.
        I talk about the specifics of my impiamrnet with my close friends and my clinitions. What I will discuss freely, however, is the fall out of my impairment .. the realitites of my daily existence (to whatever point feels comfortable), the access requirments I have, my political thoughts around disability, privilage/opression and a whole host of other things that are directly related to being a Disabled Person without talking about my genetic code.

        I do agree there is a worrying pressure to ‘normalise’ disabled people and to celebrate disabled people who can either ‘pass’ or are ‘super crips’ but I believe this comes from a very ingraned abelist undertone in society where the medical model is indoctrinated early!

        I write a fair bit about disability on my Instagram (same name as this) .. if you’re interested 🙂


  2. Thanks for responding. I would agree the body is absolutely not to blame for much of the barriers we encounter, but to discount it entirely (which many ‘purists’ – to use your phrase seem to do) seems nonsensical to me.

    You’re quite right about the various political oppressions we face, I would argue that one of them is that we’re implicitly told not to talk impairment with full frankness. You’re right to point out that the medical model is a significant undertone which is no good either, but I’d argue that the social model is ingrained too far in many disability circles – and indeed I’d put it to you that this Tory government has taken it to it’s logical terrible extreme…but that’s for another entry!


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