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?