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Is It Society Or People That Are Disabled? Raising Awareness Of Invisible Conditions

27/03/2017 13:23 BST | Updated 27/03/2017 13:23 BST

I first encountered the social model of disability in late 1990s when I was studying sociology at night school. I still remember how envious I was of the minds that created it. For me, it was a new and radical way to think about a topic. Still valid today, the basic theory is that people aren't disabled, instead it is society that disables them. Although the theory's origins can be traced to the 1960s, it was significantly developed in the 1980s by Mike Oliver. A wheelchair user and currently Emeritus Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Greenwich, he was the first to use the term 'social model of disability'.

The best way to explain the model is with an example: thus, a visually-impaired person's ability to access popular fiction is circumscribed by societies' preference for books as opposed to audio formats. In essence, it is all about looking at the barriers that prevent people doing things. The model's influence can be seen in modern legislation, such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and its replacement, The Equality Act 2010. The model is the direct opposite of biomechanical or medical models. These understand disability in terms impairments (physical, mental and sensory) which afflict a person and so need to be mended or treated in order for them to fully engage with the world about them. Put bluntly, the concern is with fixing what is 'wrong' with a person.

At the Colostomy Association we have never considered having a stoma to be a disability. But we have come to appreciate over the last 50 years that ostomates do have additional needs when using the toilet. At home this is rarely an issue but, when out and about, being able to use appropriately equipped accessible toilets is important. Our recent lifestyle questionnaire also revealed that 30% of respondents had been challenged and/or faced abuse when they had used these facilities. At the heart of the problem is public ignorance about the condition, which isn't helped by its 'hidden' or 'invisible' nature.

Our Stoma Friendly campaign seeks to address these issues. We are working with businesses and public bodies across the UK, encouraging them to improve their accessible toilet facilities. If you visit our website, you'll see we've already had lots of successes from shopping centres to tourist attractions and sporting venues. We are also fighting hard to raise public awareness. Our approach is two-pronged. Firstly, we have produced the signage stickers for accessible toilets that you can see at the bottom of this blog. These reference the hidden nature of some conditions. You may have seen these mentioned on social media, as over the past months' lots of places have started to use them. Marylebone Cricket Club, the owners of Lord's and Stoke City F.C. are our most recent takers, and we are in discussions with other Premier League teams. Secondly, we're constantly on social media talking and giving the matter profile. If you follow us on Twitter or Facebook you can join the conversation.

As you have probably worked out, our campaign owes a debt to Professor Oliver's thinking. Each week brings news of successes, but we are under no illusions about the scale of the task ahead. Ultimately we are trying, along with many others, to bring about societal change. It can be done but, as the campaign to raise awareness about mental health has shown, it takes time, patience and perseverance.

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