By Ian Loynes, Chief Executive SPECTRUM CIL
- Like many young(ish) Disabled People, I heard about the Social Model of Disability and had people telling me that it was society that disabled me. It wasn’t so much my impairments, but the way that society failed to accommodate my needs that DISABLED me.
- Well… I couldn’t accept that back then. I just couldn’t see beyond my reality that it was my joints and eyes that limited me.
- Then… I bumped into Vic Finkelstein and his essay: “To deny or not to deny disability”. It was a life defining moment for me and helped me understand just how powerful and empowering the Social Model was for me.
Vic Finkelstein was a disability activist, scholar and avid supporter of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In 1975 he penned this famous essay that showed how disability could be overcome and disappear with changes in society.
For me personally, this essay helped me to understand how important the Social Model of Disability is, and how to relate it to my life. This essay helped me to understand how it is the barriers and attitudes of people that actually disables me – rather than my impairment.
This essay is the single most influential thing I have ever read; I hope you will read it too, and I sincerely hope that it helps you to understand and relate to the Social Model of Disability, as it did for me.
Vic died in 2011, aged 73. SPECTRUM is proud to republish his essay in the belief it will be as powerful in 2017 as it was back in 1975
TO DENY OR NOT TO DENY DISABILITY
BY VIC FINKELSTEIN
Disabled People have always struggled against the way they have been prevented from taking part in the normal activities of their communities. More recently, however, these struggles have taken a step forward. Disabled People have begun to organise for their emancipation and join the growing numbers of groups struggling against social discrimination. We are taking a deeper look at ourselves, at the way we are treated and at what is meant by disability. We have noticed that it has nearly always been others who have researched, written, analysed, examined our history, and proposed their knowing solutions for us. More and more Disabled People have had experience of ‘disability experts’ and increasingly we have come to recognise the humiliation this relationship may take for granted. Can it be that having others research on the lives of Disabled People rather than us expressing our own experience has something to do with the very nature of disability? What, then is disability?
For many of us, the single factor that unites us together in our struggles is that it is our society that discriminates against us. Our society disables people with different physical impairments. The cause, then, of disability is the social relationships which take little or no account of people who have physical impairments. If this definition is correct, then it should be possible to prove that other social groups can become disabled, in an imaginary society which took no account of their physical status. In such an imaginary society it would be possible for physically impaired people to be able-bodied!
Let us see whether we can turn the world upside-down and show that disability is a socially caused problem. An upside-down world where the ‘able’ become ‘disabled’ and where we can show, too, that far from adjusting and accepting disability perhaps, just perhaps, it is healthier to deny and struggle to eliminate disability?
Let us suppose that those who believe in segregation could really have their way. We will imagine a thousand or more Disabled People, all wheelchair users, collected together and settled in their own village where they had full management and democratic rights. We will suppose able-bodied people do not often visit the village and that the wheelchair-users control all aspects of their lives. They make the goods that they sell in their shops with special aids, they work the machines that clean the streets, run their own educational colleges, banks, post offices, and transport system of the village, and so on. In fact, for the villager, being in a wheelchair is like everyone else in their world of people that he or she meets in daily life. They see wheelchair-users on television and hear them on the radio. Able-bodied people, however, are rarely seen and little understood.
In the course of the life of the village the wheelchair-users plan their lives according to their needs. They design their own buildings to suit their physical situation. One thing the wheelchair-users architects quickly discover in this village is that because everyone is always in wheelchairs there is no need to have ceilings at 9’6″ or door heights at 7’2″. Soon it becomes standard practice to build doors to a height of 5′ and ceiling or rooms to a height of 7’4″. Naturally the building codes set out in the regulations made these heights standard, now everyone is happy in the village; all the physical difficulties have been overcome and this little society has changed according to the physical characteristics of its members. At last the buildings and environment are truly in tune with their needs.
Let us say that when all the adjustments had been made and become fixed, in this wheelchair society, a few able-bodied had, through no fault of their own, to come to settle in this village. Naturally one of the first things they noticed was the heights of the doors and ceilings. They noticed this directly, by constantly knocking their heads on the door lintels.
Soon all the able-bodied members of the village were also marked by the dark bruises they carried on their foreheads. Of course, they went to see the village doctors, who were naturally, also wheelchair-users. Soon the wheelchair-user doctors, wheelchair-psychiatrists, wheelchair-user social workers etc., were involved in the problems of the able-bodied villagers.
The doctors produced learned reports about the aches and pains of the able-bodied in society. They saw how the bruises and painful backs from walking bent double so frequently were caused by their physical condition. The wheelchair-user doctors analysed the problems and wrote their definitions. They said these able-bodied people suffered a “loss or reduction of functional ability” which resulted in a handicap. This handicap caused a “disadvantage or restriction of activity” which made them disabled in this society.
Soon special aids were designed by the wheelchair-user doctors and associated professions for the able-bodied disabled members of the village. All the able-bodied were given special toughened helmets (provided free by the village) to wear at all times. Special braces were designed which gave support while keeping able-bodied wearer bent at a height similar to their fellow wheelchair-user villagers. Some doctors went so far as to suggest that there was no hope for these poor sufferers unless they too used wheelchairs, and one person even went so far as to suggest amputation to bring the able-bodied down to the right height! The able-bodied disabled caused many problems. When they sought jobs no-one would employ them.
Special experts had to be trained to understand these problems and new professions created for their care. When one able-bodied Disabled Person applied for a job as a television interviewer, a special medical examination had to be arranged to see if he was fit for this work. In the end it was decided that he was not suitable. It was felt, the wheelchair-user doctor pointed out in the case-file, that a television interviewer wearing a helmet all the time would not be acceptable. Since the cameras would only show the top of his head because the able-bodied were always bent double by the harness they had to wear he would not be suitable for interviewing. It is well known, the wheelchair-user doctor wrote, how difficult it is to communicate with the able-bodied because it is not easy to see their facial expressions and meet eye-to-eye while they are bent double.
In time special provision had to be made in the village to provide a means of obtaining money for these able-bodied disabled to live. Voluntary societies were created to collect charity and many shops and pubs had an upturned helmet placed on the counters for customers to leave their small change. Painted on the helmets were the words ‘Help the able-bodied disabled’. Sometimes a little plaster-cast model would stand in the corner of a shop, the figure bent double in their characteristic pose, with a slotted box on the figure’s back for small coins.
But one day, when the able-bodied were sitting together and discussing their problems they realised that they were never consulted by the wheelchair-users about this in the little society. In fact they realised that there may be solutions to their problems which had never occurred to the wheelchair-users simply because they never looked at these in the same way as those who had them. It occurred to these able-bodied Disabled People that perhaps the cause of their problems had a social solution – they suggested that the door and ceiling heights be changed ! They formed a union to fight segregation. Of course some of the wheelchair-users thought the able-bodied disabled were failing to accept and adjust to their disabilities and they had chips on their shoulders because they argued so strongly for social change and a change in attitudes by the wheelchair-users. The able-bodied disabled even argued that perhaps, just perhaps, their disabilities could be overcome and disappear with changes in society.
This essay has been reproduced faithfully, however, since it was written, language (particularly around disability issues) has progressed. Please note the following:
· ‘Disabled Person/People’ is the preferred term to ‘person/people with disabilities’.
· ‘non-disabled’ is the preferred term to ‘able-bodied’.
See SPECTRUM’s Language of Disability article on our Blog or on LinkedIn for more information