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Be positive about disabled people

The primary problem facing disabled people is other people's attitudes, argue Christina McGill and Margie Woodward of Scope

The trend towards politically correct (PC) language has taken a bashing over the years. Tabloid sneers and middle class mid-air parenthesis have discredited it and made it a subject for ridicule. Yet it can have a positive impact on our development as individuals and as a community.

The language of disability has undergone a relatively recent 'PC facelift', with established habits proving particularly hard to shift both for the media and the public. At face value the traditional lexicon of disability may seem to describe reality. Who could argue with words like 'victim', 'cripple', 'courageous', 'plight', 'affliction', 'wheelchair-bound' and the 'struggle' of 'the disabled' to gain a 'normal life'?

Listing them here it's easy to see their overall negative impact. Yet the constant drip-feed which they form is a force in the repression of disabled people.

By using words which instil pity, sympathy or awe, as well as some which are simply inaccurate, we take the easy way out, relegating disabled people to a class without choices and without individuality.

Take the term wheelchair-bound. A simple three-part adjective? Total nonsense, more like. While a chair made mobile by the addition of wheels might best be described as a wheelchair, to describe the person it carries as 'wheelchair-bound' is plain stupid. A person who uses a wheelchair does not spend every breathing moment sitting in it - there are no chains, no laws and no superglue.

So how should we define the person/ machine relationship? The term 'user' seems to fit.

The resulting noun, 'wheelchair user', offers a whole new set of associations. Instead of the impersonal, inflexible, limited and passive implications of the word 'bound' we gain an impression of choice, control, individuality and a means to an end. The wheelchair is used by the individual to enable them to go about their day-to-day business. For many it is their most liberating possession, taking them over the threshold into the street, to their workplace, the pub, the theatre.

By using terms such as this we acknowledge disabled people's equal right to their humanity and personality. Their wheelchair or hearing aid or specific impairment is no longer the single aspect of their lives used to define them.

Positive language like this supports the belief that disability is caused not by a human body's non-conformism, but by the built and social environment lacking the flexibility to accommodate all people in all our variety.

If disabled people were included at the start of every endeavour, there would be little need for charity and campaigning to break down the barriers which currently exist. Moreover, many other people would benefit. Make a shop accessible for a wheelchair user and you make it better for parents with pushchairs; put lifts in tube stations and more pensioners will get out and about; mount public telephones at a lower height and children can reach them in an emergency.

When we talk about disability in a way which stresses people's physical limitations we may be missing the point. However, when we describe them as victims and sufferers, or even brave heroes, we are also making a damaging mistake.

The term 'brave' implies a choice, and while it might be brave for a disabled person to tackle a bank robber, it's erroneous to say they're brave for living with their condition. Many disabled people feel angry at being said to suffer from their condition, saying they suffer only as a result of the limitations placed upon them by society and the environment. It's not their problem, it's a problem imposed upon disabled people by others.

Research carried out by Scope asked disabled people about their lives. Seventy-five per cent of those surveyed agreed with the statement 'people jump to conclusions about what I can and can't do without establishing the facts', while 60 per cent of people agreed with the statement 'people get embarrassed because they don't know how to cope with my disability'. One respondent said: 'Basically you can live with discomfort and pain. People's reactions to your disability or deformity is the real killer.'

Through using more positive language about disability, society may ultimately stop jumping to conclusions because of the way people look, even learning to consider every person for their individual qualities. If we can develop these skills the effect on the way we plan our activities and environment will invite greater inclusion and participation by disabled people. We'll be a richer community for it.

Scope is the largest disability organisation in Britain

In a word, discriminate

What disabled people surely need most, suggests Jennie Bristow, is not equal rights and positive language but practical discrimination in their favour

To me, the issue of disability has always seemed straightforward. The majority of people in society are able to walk, see, hear, talk, and so on. Others lack some or all of the abilities that most people take for granted. Society should make available its medical, technological and caring resources to enable disabled people to overcome their impairments as much as possible - whether that is by developing voice-activated computers or operating to cure deafness.

Yet the 1990s view of disability sees it primarily as a problem not of the physical condition of disabled people, but of the language and attitudes of other people. This 'social model' of disability holds that disabled people are held back not by their physical impairment, but by the fact that society organises itself around the able-bodied.

This view was summed up by a major feature in the Daily Mail on 4 January about Rebecca Farquhar, a 13-year old deaf girl who turned down an operation that could have enabled her to hear. The teenager's explanation - that she was terrified of operations - was entirely understandable. But the deputy head of her school made a very different point. 'She has made a stand for deaf culture', he applauded. 'With the skills Rebecca already has she is progressing day in, day out.' But is it better to be deaf and proud and progressing in that small, relatively isolated world, than it is to be part of mainstream society? This just seems patronising.

The focus of the 'social model' of disability is upon equal rights and equal treatment. Disabled people, it is argued, should be treated no differently than able-bodied people. But the only thing that can possibly enable disabled people to live more independent lives is differential, discriminatory treatment.

The reason disabled people have extra welfare benefits - and should have more benefits - is because living as a disabled person is more expensive than living as an able-bodied person. Sign language is provided at some conferences as an aid for people with hearing difficulties, nobody else. This is discrimination, and a good thing too. The problem is that there is not more of it.

A Scope training seminar I attended at the end of last year brought out the contradiction between the practical difficulties of disability and the view that disability is a problem caused by society's attitudes and language, not by an individual's physical limitations. The delegates took part in an exercise designed to raise our awareness about the everyday problems of disability. We had to race across the room, dressing ourselves in a coat, hat and gloves, pick up a cup of sugar from the other side of the room and come back. The coat's buttonholes and the gloves' fingers were sewn together, the hat was too small, and there was a fork in the sugar bowl.

All credit to Scope - this exercise worked. It made you realise that, for a disabled person, the most everyday tasks can be incredibly difficult, frustrating and time-consuming. But it was then confusing and even galling to become involved in a discussion arguing that an impairment was a problem caused primarily by the limitations and prejudices of society.

Of course disabled people are affected by pejorative language and assumptions. But to focus on language and behaviour reduces disability to the kind of petty name-calling or slips in etiquette that affect everybody all the time: fat people, short people, those with ginger hair and people with Midlands accents, to name but a few examples.

Nor can the focus on society's 'discriminatory' organisation around the able-bodied provide a solution to the immediate, practical problems facing disabled people. While railing against the exclusion of disabled people from the London Underground sounds very grand and ambitious, the Underground is not going to be rebuilt with wheelchair access. A lift in one Underground station is useless when there is no lift at the destination. And how would a wheelchair user fare with the trek to the station in the morning? A more sensible solution would be a kind of chauffeur service, dedicated to take disabled people where they want, when they want. No, it's not equal treatment at all; but it would make a great deal of difference to a wheelchair user.

Disability is not a condition to be celebrated and accommodated as another lifestyle difference. It is, as even Scope's permitted vocabulary admits, a physical or mental 'impairment', causing practical problems that need to be overcome. More needs to be done to enable disabled people to lead more independent, 'normal' lives. Attacking the concept of normality and constraining the speech and abilities of able-bodied people can do no good for anybody.

Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999



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