The Blogging Against Disablism Day is a fantastic initiative, to which I contribute this blog, which should not be misconstrued as a criticism of the initiative itself.
I’ve never though been a fan of the word ‘disablism.’ To talk about ‘disability’ in the same way as race assigns it the same status – an intrinsic personal characteristic which itself the object of discrimination. To have equivalence with say racism or homophobia it should technically be impairmentism, for it is impairment that is the relevant ‘personal characteristic’ and impairment-related prejudice disables, in the same way other socially constructed barriers disable.
This is important because it is my contention is that the prejudice and discrimination that disabled people face all stems from one specific viewpoint – one which is deeply embedded in our and other society’s value- systems, our everyday practices and our institutions – that an impairment or long term health condition is de-facto a deficit.
So embedded is this idea that it forms the criteria by which people are judged to be eligible for benefits or social care. The deserving disabled person is he or she who is considered to have no agency or potential for productive life. To not be in deficit is to not be considered eligible. To manage to strive off the back of such support is to be a scrounger.
It is there in the way social care and criminal justice both describe individuals and groups with impairments or health conditions as ‘vulnerable’ – as though inviting harm upon themselves – or ‘hard to reach’ as though deliberately in hiding – not as people in vulnerable situations because of the failure of public institutions to reach them.
It is there in the presumptions of medical professionals in life and death decision making at the beginning, end and throughout the lives of people with impairments or health conditions that their lives are less worth saving.
It is there in the continued insistence on describing some children as having ‘special educational needs’ rather than schools as having failed to include them.
It is there in the operation of laws which strip people of the right to make decisions about their own lives on grounds of mental capacity rather than supporting them to do so, in the practice of warehousing people in institutions large or small which rob people of their identity and personhood, and in the neglect, inhuman and degrading treatment which people with impairments and health conditions continue to be subjected.
This idea of impairment as de facto deficit was also clearly present in the media coverage of the the killing of three children by their mother last week. Within hours of discovering the children had Spinal Muscular Atrophy the media were scrambling to make sense of their deaths by asking questions openly regarding their life expectancy, or the demands placed on the mother in caring for them – their perceived deficits providing justification for their killing.
The notion that disability equals deficit embodies the idea that disabled people are less than human. And to be less than human provides the justification to be denied equal human rights.
The things I’ve described above are no doubt what others regard as ‘disablist’. But I believe we can’t afford to allow ourselves to use the concepts of disability and impairment interchangeably in this way. By doing so we blur what we have fought so hard to convey as the meaning of disability – as socially constructed barriers – and by doing so undermine our ability to challenge the idea that while there are many deficits, these are not borne of a persons body or mind, but of the society in which we live and which we can and must continue to change for the better.