- (c) Flickr user luzarge
Disability and impairment are not interchangeable terms or automatic bedfellows but are commonly used without precision. Over the past three decades, activists and academics involved in the UK Disabled People’s Movement have developed social, post-social and affirmative models of disability in opposition to the previously dominant medical models.
Medicalised or traditional notions of disability view ‘disability’ as synonymous to ‘problem’. Such notions are being increasingly contested through new models of disability that define disability as socially constructed as opposed to something physically determined.
New models of disability, such as the social, post-social and affirmative models, differentiate between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’ and argue that an impairment is not equivalent to disability; it, instead, becomes a disability as a result of disabling environmental factors (like the lack of hearing loops).
Social modelists are of the view that impairment categories are irrelevant to collective oppression of disabled people. Post-social modelists affirm sensitivity to individual experience which is congruent with the approach of disability practitioners. The social model is not necessarily exportable to impoverished majority world contexts. This is relevant to international students and UK university provisions within the majority world. The affirmative model emphasises ordinariness and rejects impairment as tragedy.
Structural barriers that disabled people face, like stairs, are obvious but attitudinal barriers (for example, nursing is an inappropriate career for someone with dyslexia), can be subtle. Such assumptions by teachers, parents, careers advisors etc can limit opportunity. Disability practitioners challenge such restrictive assumptions.
Language and Identity
Attitudinal barriers are quite often reflected through language and identity fixation. Terms such as ‘special needs’, ‘tragedy’, ‘charity’ etc tend to have negative connotations. The term ‘disabled people’ has come to be favoured over ‘people with disability’ as it reflects disability as external as opposed to something that is intrinsic to an individual’s identity. Practitioners often have to explain this and justify social model terminology.
Sensitivity is required to the contention that ‘othering’ language and attitudes can precipitate social exclusion. A Russell Group undergraduate with five A levels ( grade A) told me ‘I used to be a special needs child.’ He demonstrated low self esteem and said he had not been particularly encouraged towards university. Such ‘spoiled identity,’ is possibly an unintended consequence of the language of special education.
Such usage also leads to a culture of ‘othering’ disabled people through the binary of ‘them’ and ‘us’ where ‘them’ are ‘laced with strangeness’. A disabled student, for example, described being approached by someone who said ‘my son is married to someone like you’ (referring to her dwarfism)’. Disabled people are progressively rejecting the imposed identity of ‘other’.
The Equality Act 2010 recognises multiple identities and the positive duty to build good relationships between men/women, disabled/non-disabled people and ethnic groups. The expression ‘nothing about us without us’ chimes with the requirement of the Equality Act 2010 for institutions to involve stakeholders in order to develop appropriate policy, practice and procedures. Working with disabled people as individuals in order to come up with bespoke reasonable adjustments is part of the story.
An understanding of the social construction of disability is required in order to engage with the process of eradicating barriers and to pave the way for inclusive practice to minimise disadvantage. Inclusive practice needs to be embedded in institutions’ routine practices rather than as compensatory or additional. Inclusive practice starts with the creation of awareness and a non-intimidating environment.
One of the challenges that many higher education institutions face is non-disclosure of identity. Though it is impossible to determine how many disabled staff and students have not disclosed their impairment, the reasons behind non-disclosure can be partly determined. Research shows that ‘fear of discrimination’ is one of the main factors behind non-disclosure, as is the lack of realisation of entitlements owed to disabled people.
It is precisely these areas that institutions need to work on to establish a culture of ‘belonging’. It needs to be remembered that inclusion is broader than disability and that barriers are not always impairment related.
Dr Nicola Martin is the Head of the LSE Disability and Wellbeing Service. Her interests lie in critical disability studies and inclusive education. Prior to being at LSE, she was Principal Lecturer in Inclusive Practice and Director of The Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam. As a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, she is engaged in emancipatory research with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Cambridge students labelled with Asperger syndrome. She also set up the Disability Equality Research Network (DERN) at LSE.