National Comment Comment

Disability is a political identity

Disability is fundamentally misunderstood by the majority of society, many institutions and organisations, and even some disabled people themselves.

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Disability is fundamentally misunderstood by the majority of society, many institutions and organisations, and even some disabled people themselves. Not only does society fail to implement a useful model of disability, but we (as disabled people) hesitate to embrace disability as a political identity, to our detriment.
My blindness is part of who I am, it is not my disability. I do not carry it around with me as a cumbersome addition to my identity. It has shaped all my experiences and formed my character. I believe this is true of all disabled people.

That disability is an identity is clear then, but many overlook its political nature. Disability is political by virtue of the society in which we live: one which disables us.The social model of disability means that there is nothing 'wrong' with the individual; everybody has different needs and it is society that fails to meet them. This is in contrast to the medical model of disability which says that society functions to the benefit of the majority and anyone who cannot operate within its framework is physically or psychologically flawed.

Firstly, we can fully reject the medical model. It is possible to liken it to the psychiatric diagnoses of homosexuality in previous eras. The first step towards LGBT+ rights was to break the idea that divergent sexualities constitute illnesses. Similarly, we need to stop viewing disabled people as ill.
This frees a disabled person from many of the boundaries that hold them back. It dissipates feelings of self-blame or self-rejection, because there is nothing wrong with you.

My blindness constitutes a disability because not enough reading material is available; because people don't understand I might not recognise; because urban planners don't take into account my needs. Mental health conditions constitute disabilities because the pressure of our working environment induces stress; because the prevalence of an aspirational culture leads to depression; and because of the inability of most people to be patient with someone who is anxious.
Mobility impairments constitute a disability because doors are not wide enough for wheelchairs; because public transport is inadequate; and because nobody bothers to grit the step-free routes when it snows. The list is endless. And none of it is the fault of the disabled person.

These physical and social barriers that create disability are as fundamental as the structural disadvantages that have made (and continue to make) women second-class citizens. Gender is widely recognised as a political identity by virtue of its ability to affect not only the way in which you see the world, but also how the world sees you.

In similar fashion, it's time for disabled people to embrace disability as a political identity. This is a positive step in many respects. Firstly, self-acceptance is a liberating act in itself. Secondly, removing the stigma of disability allows the rest of society to understand how disability is created and reflect upon this injustice. Finally, for me, 'political' is synonymous with 'active'.

Right now, things are changing for the worse when they could easily be changing for the better. There is no way that disabled people can engage in political struggle until we have accepted that disability is a political identity.

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5 Comment

Brad Lineker Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

Informative, authoritative and innovative take on one of several "sub-cultures" that are more-or-less ignored in our society. Thanks for this valuable insight.

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Peter Bryenton Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

An informative perspective which resonated with many of the observations I make in my teaching work, thank you Maddy.

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Lucky Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

Excellently phrased and I totally agree, thank you for writing.

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Daniel Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

in a word, Brilliant!

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Isidore of Seville Posted on Saturday 28 Mar 2020

A breath of fresh air, especially given how ableist a lot of articles in campus media have been lately. This is a great article, and you should write more on the topic.

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