I recently received the draft of an educational document from a local authority that contained repeated use of the word ‘handicap(ped)’ when referring to disability or those with disabilities. I was appalled and stated so. What is most appalling is that this was from a department dealing with education, along with social services, and the author and earlier viewers of the draft obviously had no idea of the social model of disability, where society is the party that disables people by the lack of provision, or acceptance of whatever it is, that reduces those people’s ability to easily participate in society as a whole. I managed to cause a little stir over this, but in the end the blame was put on haste, missing the expression when proof-reading (the multiple uses of the phrase), and using a volunteer.
Why does this matter? It matters because this was a local authority education department that appears to have missed the point. By not actively discouraging the use of such archaic terminology they are placing people with disabilities at a lower level within the community and are continuing the de-humanisation of those with disabilities in the manner that cost the lives of around a quarter of a million human beings during the Holocaust. This is possibly the same reason that the same body, as it reduces services and support to those with disabilities, condemns them to remain hidden in homes and without a social life. So where does this fit in with the Paralympics’ legacy – it is obviously no legacy at all – when the much-impoverished daily lives of those with disabilities cannot generate a photo-opportunity for the politicians.
Not having a disability, although having experienced episodes of disability, and having associated with those with disabilities for forty years I now find myself working with them for half my week. I recommend this to those highly detached politicians and public servants who don’t have a clue of the reality. Whilst the Prime Minister makes much of his late child’s disability, does he, with the comfort blanket of inherited wealth, really understand the daily lives of ordinary people, let alone those with a disability or even worse multiple disabilities? Does the Leader of the Opposition, with all his talk of ‘One Britain’ as a juxtaposition to ‘Big Society’ ever get his hands dirty?
There is a relatively new sociological theory called ‘intersectionality‘ which brings further forms of identity and distinction into the bigger model. Is life for a woman of colour with a disability different to that of a white woman with the same disability. What does the compounding of gender, race, colour, disability, age, sexuality, class and many more distinctions bring to that person’s life chances when the language employed by bureaucracy is already condemning them as second or third class citizens, or the methods of service delivery recreating barriers?
There is no easy answer to the questions raised, only that by continual awareness and education will matters ever change. The Paralympic games have changed since I first witnessed them in the 1970’s and become more prominent but in the aftermath of the latest, and celebrated UK hosting, has the abuse of Blue Badges or the associated parking areas stopped? Have architects and planners stopped designing public buildings without the correct facilities as a result of failing to consult potential users beforehand? Are systems and facilities changed or removed without consideration of how they might affect the lives of those who use them? These matters occur and will to continue to do so, if those that do it are forever excused, along with no-one speaking out.