We live in a society that is designed by and for people who are not disabled. The result is that those of us who have long term medical conditions or an individual disability, are over-looked and excluded.
A simple example of this would be if I, as a wheelchair user, go to a meeting in a building where there are stairs to get to the meeting room then I am excluded, however if there are no stairs then I am included. I have not changed but the situation has, the situation determines whether I am excluded or not.
Like other disabled people, I am disabled by society’s systems and practices which are accompanied by negative attitudes and culture. This creates social disability which is imposed on top or our long term medical conditions/individual disability.
That is why I use the term “disabled people”, because I am disabled by systems and practices that exclude me. The term “people with disabilities” infers an expectation that individuals should fit in with “normal practice” or be excluded. I am not distracted by the very many attempts for me to prioritise one type of long term medical condition or ‘individual disability’ over others.
It is important to understand the difference between ‘individual disability’ and social disability in order to find solutions to the exclusion of disabled people. Recognising social disability as the problem means that systems and practices have to change, along with attitudes and culture.
The social disability approach is also known as the Social Model of Disability, it was developed by disabled people in the 1970s and 1980’s who recognised that it was society’s systems and practices that stopped them living in the community and reaching their potential. It influenced policy and practice in the 1990’s and 2000’s, but recently it has become less known, not least because disabled people’s organisations have not been able to compete with large charities, or other organisations that do not disturb comfort zones, in gaining funding.
Using the social disability approach I focus on systems, practices, negative attitudes and culture to bring about change. This can be very uncomfortable for those who do not want to change “normal practice”. I disturb comfort zones!
My success stories
I was on the Transport Committee of the Liverpool City Region 3-4 years ago when a presentation was given about the new trains. I said the trains needed to be level with the platforms so wheelchair users can get on and off without having to arrange for a ramp to be brought. The Committee agreed with me, members of the committee told me that had I not been there they would not have thought of this. The trains will be running next year and stations are currently being upgraded to make platforms the right height and to improve step free access in and out of the station and to the platforms.
I also had input into the design of the new Mersey Ferry which will have a lift so everyone can get to the upper deck, as well as it having a wheelchair accessible toilet.
Nationally fewer than 10% of homes are accessible to wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments, many more are not adaptable or adaptations are ugly and unsatisfactory.
This means that not only is it very difficult for disabled people to find a home to live in, but also we cannot visit family, friends and neighbours. This has serious implications for social and economic life. My priority has been to get 10% of new homes in the City to be wheelchair accessible with the rest being more accessible and adaptable.
There has been resistance to this from some developers and others who thought it was not possible, but there are now several hundred more accessible and adaptable homes. Developers I have spoken to have said any extra cost is negligible because they were designed to be accessible from the outset.
I chair the Corporate Access Forum (CAF) which comprises disabled people with a range of different long term medical conditions/“individual disability” everyone has to take account of the requirements of others as well as themselves. CAF is LCC’s consultation group for regeneration projects and has been able to influence these.
There are fewer women than men in a position to influence real change whether as elected members or positions of influence elsewhere. It is even more unusual for disabled people to be in such positions, particularly those of us who do not accept the status quo which perpetuates our exclusion.
My experience as a disabled woman differs from that of non-disabled women. We do face a particular form of sexism, also many non-disabled women do not understand what social disability is, and so disabled women face this double exclusion. The experience of disabled women differs from disabled men who whilst not having equality with non-disabled men can still benefit from male privilege.