Inclusion Scotland

Working towards a society where disabled people are equal citizens

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Friday, 8 June 2012

The social model of disability says that we are disabled by attitudes and barriers in society and not by our impairments. But Mike Shamash believes that it’s time to find something that expresses what we are beyond a social construct.

I am writing this piece with some trepidation because I know that it will get up certain people’s noses.

In my view, the social model of disability that has served our community pretty well so far now needs to be developed to deal with the complexity and diversity of disability.

I pay tribute to the key thinkers behind the social model – Mike Oliver, Vic Finkelstein, Colin Barnes, Len Barton and others – for putting disability on the academic and political map as a social construction, and explaining the nature of social oppression. Now, however, we need to move on to a more rounded understanding of disability.

The problem that I have with the social model is that it portrays disabled people as a bloc of people whose identity and aspirations have never been fully realised due to the social and policy barriers that they encounter.

Little examination is given to the people behind this oppression. That’s because the social model focuses on the problems we face and not on the people we are.

At its crudest, it makes us uncomfort­able discussing the positive aspects of our impair­ments, for fear of endors­ing the prejudices of mainstream society.

In short, the social model is strong on journey but weak on destination.

The response to disability has to be more profound than simply a blame game. I sometimes worry that a righteous, possibly self-righteous, anger is our emotional default when we could be more imaginative and creative. More focus should be given to the potency of contrast and adversity. There are valuable differences in being visually impaired, say, compared with being of restricted growth. Instead of hushing such differences up we should celebrate them.

I have written extensively about fashion and design for disabled people in order to highlight the creative potential locked up inside us. Disabled people have a beating heart and soul that challenges norms. We adapt our personal appearance and environment against all the odds. At the restricted growth conventions that I have attended I have always been aware how stylishly clothed and self-confident young people are.

I see style as a riposte to those who marginalise us. If the aspiration is the Body Beautiful maybe we need to reclaim and expand the concept of beauty.

What I am saying is that we exist and that our exist­ence has to be celebrated. We are far more than barriers. Despite the coalition Government’s efforts to turn back the clock, disabled people have advanced: too little and too slowly, but advanced, none the less.

Again, for fear of looking complicit, the social model has not changed enough to admit that these changes have produced vibrant people, comfortable in an uncomfortable world.

I am not advocating political inertia: far from it.

I want society to change drastically, but disabled people are more than just agents of change.

My own view is that the concept of the disabled person was not the product of medical influence on social policy as such but of capitalist segregation of labour. Doctors created institutions that acted as dumping grounds for those who failed the demands of capitalist labour: work-houses for the different.

These institutions were both zoo and prison – and there are still residential units and day centres today that exploit and abuse us.

There is so much more to the lives of disabled people. While not neglecting the inmates we must cele­brate our freedom. Instead of demonising doctors, we ought to admit that some doctors are good and some are bad, just as we are.

I have never had serious problems with the medical profession, but to admit this is like sleeping with the enemy. We need a more nuanced response. We need to acknow­ledge good days as well as bad, and open up all aspects of our lives to discussion.

A major component of me is my impairment – or, if you like, my difference – and I don’t see that as purely negative. In that, I am far from unique. About three years ago I attended a conference in Manchester. One of the speakers was a deaf blind lecturer from Japan. He told the audience about the problems he had faced but he also lit us up with the beauty of his world, likening it to the Aurora Borealis.

It was a spine-tingling moment. I want disabled people to feel the same way.

Society has double standards. Think of the fuss in the media about the heroism of David Rathband, the policeman blinded by Raoul Moat who went on to commit suicide because he could not face up to his loss of sight. Perhaps if he had been given more support to show that life can be lived with blindness, he would still be with us.

We have to hold on to life’s beauty. Society bars disabled people in so many ways but we have much to offer. I do not come to bury the social model but to plant a fragrant bloom in its soil.

Disability Now