The Blog

Disability Rights Are Meaningless Without Responsibilities

I feel that many disabled people are very good at understanding and claiming their rights but when it comes to their responsibilities, they are somewhat reluctant, often reverting back to playing the victim.

Over the last 20 years, civil and human rights has been central to disability politics but I would like to argue in the same way there is no taking without giving, that rights are meaningless without responsibilities. As a citizen of any country, we have an often unwritten contract or agreement with the state that says it will provide us things like health, housing and transport, and in exchange we promise to complete our school education, not commit crimes and be productive citizens.

I feel that many disabled people are very good at understanding and claiming their rights but when it comes to their responsibilities, they are somewhat reluctant, often reverting back to playing the victim. Society in the UK has invested billions of pounds in making buildings, transport and other services more accessible for disabled people and at times I must wonder what was the point when I hear some people complaining it is worse than it has ever been? Of course things will always need to improve but we must recognise and celebrate what has been achieved. No one can sit at home waiting for the right weather to go out in because it will never come and people have a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities provided to them, even if they are not perfect.

A central right disabled people continue to fight for is supposedly independent living, and I have reached a stage where I am unsure what it now means. It used to mean not living in residential care but I would argue you can live in your own home and still be institutionalised in a different way. Nowadays independent living refers to the support disabled people may need to be active citizens such as housing, personal care and transport. So while it is sold as a right, it is actually about being able to take responsibilities.

Sadly once professionals get their hands on independent living, it is watered down into a concept where disabled people will have the choices they allow them to have, without the responsibilities that go with them, making them meaningless because every real choice has consequences. I believe true independent living can not be given to people but rather the opportunities can be laid out for them which only they can grasp and therefore only they can determine if they are going to be the next Bill Gates, or just another couch potato.

I believe the state should support everyone in what they need but what this actually is will be dependent on their outcomes and the opportunities they choose to take up. For disabled people, I feel they have the right to have an equal experience to non-disabled people depending on the choices and opportunities they make and therefore everyone's outcomes and so needs will be different. In this context, no government can give anyone an education or a job but simply they down the opportunities for them to take up.

I believe if the disability agenda does not move towards talking about rights and responsibilities pretty quickly, society will start losing patience and really wonder what do these seemingly ungrateful group of people really want as they appear to demand more and more without any desire to give anything back. I am not suggesting that every sick or disabled person must get a job tomorrow or that many aspects of society do not need improving, but it is understanding the true equality is more about responsibilities than rights.

I am often perceived as lacking compassion for my fellow disabled people but I would argue sympathy, rather than empathy, is often the last thing many people need and if people feel sorry for themselves and as a result refuse to make the choices they need to make, then other people will make the choices for them, often without asking. If independent living is about anything, it is about self-determination and this requires people to be brave and strong, especially when life feels difficult. Someone who is truthful and therefore supportive is going to be more a friend than those who simply look at you with pity and discomfort.

Like everyone else, disabled people should be in control of their destiny, and in this context they should not put so much faith in the government to do everything for them and should be prepared for some degree of hardship to be successful in life. I do not allow anyone to take charge of my destiny and I often do things successfully before finding out they were impossible. Not everyone has my level of determination and sheer bloody mindedness but if you can support people to be more assertive, positive and active than many are now, we would find more people solving their own problems rather than always 'campaigning' the government and others to do it for them.

Rights and responsibilities go hand in hand, and unless many disabled people start taking them on board, the politics of disability, which has already been soured in recent years, will become more confrontational with a general public that is becoming tired of always hearing what disabled people want without also hearing what they are prepared to offer society in exchange.