In my twenties I had an epiphany. While in a lift I was accosted by disability rights campaigner Vicky Waddington and in an impassioned rant she explained the social model of disability. Up until that moment I thought about my disability just like most other people. I understood that what disabled me was what was "wrong" with me. I couldn't walk due to a spinal injury, which meant I had to use a wheelchair to get around. When I found myself unable to get into a building, or facing attitudes that implied I was less than able bodied people, it was due the fact that I was different, broken. My disability meant I was less than other people who weren't disabled. This, I discovered, was called the medical model of disability and even today is how most people understand what it is to be disabled.
You see the social model of disability flips the whole thing on it's head. It says sure disabled people have medical issues, whether they are physical, mental or cognitive, but these are not their disabilities. Instead these are described as impairments. These impairments just make disabled people different, but not less or broken. If that's the case, what is it that disables disabled people? Well this is the kicker. We are disabled by the inaccessible world around us and the negative attitudes of the rest of society. The best way to consider this is by imaging my life. As a wheelchair user, I can get around independently and with ease when I'm wheeling around my home. It's been fully adapted for my needs. Once I go outside things get a little less easy, with pavements impacting on my ability to whizz around depending on how well they are laid or maintained, but I can mostly do the things I want to do. The issues start once I find myself trying to get into a building with a stepped entrance. Suddenly I am stuck, unable to get into the building. Thus I become disabled. It's not my inability to walk, however, that prevents me getting into the building, but the fact it was built with steps as the only way of gaining access. What is great about the social model is that as well as this concept that the blame for my disability was not mine but the world's and how it currently exists, which in itself is mind blowing, the model points out that things can change, for the better. By putting a lift or a ramp next to the steps the building suddenly is accessible to me. Thus I become less disabled. As we build a more inclusive accessible world, disabled people become less disabled.
On top of the physical changes, the social model points out that disabled people are not less or broken but that way of thinking itself disables us. Attitudes are as disabling as an inaccessible building. Negative attitudes are big issue for disabled people. We live in a world that paints us as either poor tragic figures, who dream of being cured and are described as vulnerable, or we are scroungers, living off benefits, being a drain on society. One attitude says we can't work, and the other says we also shouldn't be supported and helped. Trust me, these are real and disabled people face them every day. So as well as building a more accessible world, we need to move towards a world that sees disability and impairment differently. The social model not says that this is possible, but it insists that disabled people must be involved in shaping these changes, which in itself alters attitudes in a positive way.
"OK Mik, that's all great but why are we all disabled now?" Well, if we accept the social model of disability, and trust me as a disabled person it describes my experience very well, then might it not describe what it means to different in other ways? I'm old enough to remember when it was widely accepted that many minority groups, and even the majority group of women, were inferior in some way. Many of the adults I knew as a child regularly claimed that foreigners were "different from us", and this meant not as good as us whites. Words that we would now find highly offensive were used in common conversation. As I got older I discovered that my most people thought my gay and lesbian friends were "sick", and needed either curing or wiping out. Women were thought of as the weaker, fairer sex. These are attitudes that mirror the way disabled people are thought of, and sadly have not been resigned to the past.
Then, in the last six months, we've seen huge seismic events in the world of politics, driven it seems by people feeling left out of many of the benefits of the world around them. Many people who voted for Brexit or for Donald Trump claim they wanted to stop the status quo that had excluded them and painted them as not being worthy of listening to, and they were not benefiting from society. They felt left out and ignored. On top of that, all the people who didn't vote Brexit or Trump also now feel excluded and ignored. This is the way disabled people have felt through out history. Thus it seems to me, we end up in a situation where pretty much all of the world is experiencing what it means to be disabled.
So if we adopt a social model way of thinking, see our similarities rather than our differences, demand real change is required and that our voices are listened to then maybe we can start to rebuild a conscientious. Maybe we can stop the growing divides between us and come together to build a fairer, more inclusive world.Suggest a correction