Anyone who has read any of my blog before will have worked out that I do rather a lot of thinking and analysing of how our actions and behaviour etc. can impact on others. I also worry rather a lot about whether what I say or do might be misconstrued by others or whether I am saying something that might offend someone else.
Having said that, I also have some very strong values and opinions particularly around the issues of rights, equality, respect and choice and, because of my personal background inevitably the particular issues about which I have most to say are about disability rights and equality etc.
Sometimes it is very difficult to bring this reluctance to offend and my desire to be accepted and seek approval with my equal desire to challenge thinking. However I have also come to learn that if I get this balance right it can be very powerful. When I worked for a large organisation I was often asked to organise meetings which involved a wide range of people with differing views and on several occasions it was made clear to me that I had been asked to organise the meeting because I would be able to engage people from a variety of different view points. You will have to judge for yourselves whether you think this is true.
I have been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks in relation to two specific issues that I have given more and more thought to over the last couple of months related to the various work and awareness / equality / acceptance campaigning I have been engaged with on a personal level. Both issues are slightly different although they both have a common theme of how much more powerful we would all be if we could work with the things that unite us rather than focussing on some of the detailed issues.
The two issues that I am thinking a lot about at the moment are:
1. Access to transport for disabled people and the way the debate is sometimes framed in terms of wheelchairs vs push chairs.
2. The desire to promote disability equality and rights and a tendency I have observed sometimes where it almost seems like one group of disabled people are competing with another group.
I’m sure there are many other debates, issues and causes where there are a variety of similar groups all trying to achieve similar ends, but coming from different specific backgrounds. It is all too easy to get very focused on the issue which relates most to you. This is natural because we all talk and act best based on personal experience.
I guess my tendency is to try sometimes to take a little step back and to try to see where some of the common issues are for a variety of groups because I believe that if several groups are able to find a common thread it gives them all a much wider base from which to argue for change.
I wanted really to talk a little about something that really underpins a lot of my thinking. That is ‘the Social Model of Disability’. This might sound like scary academic language to many people and it did originate from academic studies, but in very simple terms there are 2 general ways that people tend to think about disabled people and disability.
The first is ‘the medical model’ which is used by doctors and health professionals and tends to think in terms of a diagnosis, the name of a syndrome or condition and there is a lot of focus on ‘treatment’, ‘cure’ and services that focus on the medical model tend to think in terms of labeling and categorising people in terms of diagnoses, treatment and medical symptoms. It is often linked with the idea of wanting to treat people, to make them ‘better’, which implies that there is something ‘wrong’ with them.
The Social model, assumes a rather different approach. It accepts that people have ‘impairments’, health conditions etc. that may need medical treatment and may cause pain etc. But it agues that people are not so much ‘disabled’ by their diagnosis / condition but by the barriers and attitudes which exist within society.
I am not an academic and this difference is much better explained quite simply in this video by Disability Lib or this article from ‘The Red Cross’ which was recommended to me by a colleague on twitter.
It is the social model that underpins my views and my desire to campaign for better rights and equality for all disabled people regardless of the nature of their specific condition. In my own experience the issues I can most identify with are visual impairment because it affects me and the rest of my family and autistic spectrum conditions, because I advocate for my Son who is also on the autistic spectrum. Although both of these ‘conditions’ are very different in terms of the medical diagnosis, and ‘treatment’ etc. There are many common issues that make it difficult for me to do something because I’m visually impaired and for my Son because of his asperger’s. There are also many common issues we face in our wish to participate in society and to be able to reach our potential and have to make choices about the way we live.
essentially, for both of us, many of the things that would make life a lot easier are things that could be changed within the environment or if other people were a little bit more aware of how the decisions they make might make it easier or harder to for us to contribute, join in, make a choice etc.
So just to go back to the 2 issues that have been bugging me lately:
Accessible transport for disabled people and framing the debate in terms of ‘Wheelchairs vs Push chairs’ – I really don’t like it when I hear people talk in these terms. I will write a more detailed post about this, but, in basic terms, my view is that we all want better public transport that is more efficient and useable for all (OK, may be not all – I’m sure some people don’t care and are quite happy to clog up the roads with more and more cars). Mums with buggies need space, wheelchair users need space, people pushing buggies benefit from ramps, and so do wheelchair users. In my opinion the issue should not be about who has more right than who, it should be about where are the common issues and how can wheelchair users and disability campaigners work together with parents groups to achieve a more useable system for all? and how can we build a community which respects everyone?
My second little niggle is about groups of disabled people campaigning for specific issues. This, in itself I can understand, we all work best and are driven most by personal experience. However, I sometimes observe that, by doing this, people almost end up competing in terms of which groups are more disadvantaged than others. In my humble opinion, and by thinking in terms of the social model, all disabled people are disadvantaged if there are barriers and attitudes which exist within society that make it difficult for us and our children to participate. Depending on a person’s particular needs (needs rather than diagnosis) all of these barriers will be slightly different for each individual because we are all different. Most of us disability and parent campaigners spend endless hours trying to explain that we are all different! and we want service providers, teachers and colleagues to accept us for who we are. We are united in that we need organisations and our friends, neighbours, teachers, colleagues etc to think about how their actions might impact on others rather than assuming we are all the same.
I know for a lot of people there is some belief that it is ‘easier’ for some disabled people because they have a ‘visible impairment’ eg. they use a wheelchair or have a guide dog. OK, these people may not have to provide an initial explanation, but they still face many barriers and some barriers may well be more pronounced because it is obvious to others what their disadvantages might be. Yes it can be frustrating for many reasons to ‘have a condition’ that is not ‘visible’ immediately to others because you might have to explain your needs, but please let’s try and work together as disabled people and parents of disabled children to try to campaign for more understanding in general and try to focus on where the common issues are, such as the need for others to respond to individuals and to ask people what they need rather than by making blanket assumptions. For example by making statements such as ‘it is easier for people in wheelchairs to be accepted than those on the autism spectrum’ is, in my opinion, not helping anyone. We are all disadvantaged, the specific nature may be different, but lets look at the common issues and work together. There are many people who have a range of impairments and health conditions that are not visible and many who’s ‘conditions’ are all too visible, but surely what we all want is to be respected for who we are. It is not easier for one group than another, it is just a difference of detail.
It is by joining forces and finding common ground that is likely to help us build joint understanding and harness a much broader level of support to achieve a wider level of understanding, both of the needs of other disabled people but also in working together we have a much greater voice within society. Again I will explore some of this in more detail at some point because I am aware it is not always so simple, particularly in the world of bidding for funds, but as ‘grass-roots’ disabled and parent campaigners I believe there is a huge potential to find common ground and work together to have a very powerful voice.
So, please let me know. Do you think there is an opportunity we could use here to build some common goals or am I living in ‘cloud cuckoo land?
Also if there is anyone out there that knows of a really simple article about the ‘Social Model’ that has been written by a disabled person or disabled people’s organisation please let me know. The article linked to this is very clear, but it did concern me that it hasn’t been written by a disabled people’s organisation.
Thanks again for reading. If this does ring any bells with you it would be great if you could share this post as I really do believe that this is something that really help a lot of current campaigns. I’d also love to know if you’ve read this and if it’s made you stop and think any differently about things.