To Deny or Not to Deny Disability - What is disability?

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by Vic Finkelstein

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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 joined 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?

To 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 no or little 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 the 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 the "disabled" and the "disabled" become the "able-bodied" and where we 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 street, 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 she or he meets in daily life. They see wheelchair-users on television and hear them on radio. Able-bodied people, however, are only 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-user architects quickly discover in this village is that because everyone is always in wheelchairs there is no need to have ceilings at 9 feet 6 inches high or door heights at 7 feet 2 inches. Soon it becomes standard practice to build doors to a height of 5 feet and ceiling or rooms to a height of 7 feet 4 inches. 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 character 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 became fixed, in this wheelchair-user society, a few able-bodied had, through no choice of their own, to come and 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-user 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 the 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 whether he was fit for this work. In the end it was decided that be 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 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. 


Source: Magic Carpet, New Year 1975, xxvii, No. 1, pp 31 - 8. [from Brechin, A., Liddiard, P. and Swain, J. (Eds.) (1981) Handicap in a social world, Hodder and Stoughton.]