Francesca Martinez (the Comedian With Cerebral Palsy) argues that the opposite of disabled is not ‘non-disabled’, it is ‘not yet disabled’. We currently use these terms as if there is a clear and stark separation between these two categories, and yet it is evident that most people undergo a gradual loss of their physical and mental capabilities over the course of their lifetime. The average person spends 7 years of their life disabled, and unless you are lucky enough to die through accident or murder, you are likely to experience months or years of being unable to do certain things that it’s only human to take for granted.
The concept of a lack, or loss, of abilities is obviously a very subjective one: which abilities, precisely, place you over here, in opposition to the disabled? Martinez also asked us to imagine how someone who can’t do DIY would feel if they had to answer the same questions which are often put to her:
“Were you born that way?”
“Were your parents unable to do DIY?”
(going down to a whisper) “Can you still have sex?”
However, not being able to do DIY usually only impacts on a person’s life in an occasional way and is easily circumvented by employing someone to help you as a one-off service – arguably, it’s when your health condition creates difficulties for you in a regular and frequent way that you are more likely to self-identify, or be identified, as disabled.
My sister struggles to navigate public transport on a daily basis, because she has a small child in a pushchair. Nobody would identify her as disabled, probably because this impediment is external, temporary and occasionally adorable, but the situation is similar to that of somebody in a wheelchair. On a recent research project, I met somebody with MS, who uses a wheelchair on and off, because her condition causes relapses where her vision and physical strength are both dramatically reduced. For both of these women, disability isn’t something they are, it’s something that happens to them.
The social model of disability seeks to locate the problem not in the person but in their environment: the wheels aren’t the disability, it’s the lack of ramps. This should absolutely be our top priority in society right now: remove the obstacles in our built and cultural environment that prevent people fulfilling their potential. Research has come a long way in terms of creating compensations for physical health problems, whether it’s pills for cancer, Oscar Pistorius’s medal-winning prosthetics or braille on road crossings.
The biggest obstacle now to adapting our environment to disabilities, I would argue, is not creative capability but financial capability. The NHS is struggling with the financial burden of an ageing population and cannot necessarily fund every medicine or operation we invent. Many mental health conditions would be better treated by talking therapies than silenced with pills, but this is prohibitively expensive. Above all, disability is a financial burden, often a large and long-term financial burden, on the person who has it. For somebody who is poor and lives in a home in a state of disrepair, not being able to do DIY becomes a much greater disability – and as this Special Olympian pointed out to Ann Coulter recently, this is a much more common situation among disabled people.
Many health conditions make it difficult to hold down a job: you can imagine why an employer, faced with a disabled candidate and a not-yet-disabled candidate of similar ability, might pick the latter for reasons that have as much to do with risk aversion as simple prejudice. The disabled person themselves may lose the physical ability or the mental willpower to work or look for work. Disability is an emotional burden too, and there’s a whole spectrum from feeling occasionally frustrated to clinical depression. Without financial and social support networks in place, there is a real danger of a downwards spiral, with failing physical health causing a loss of psychological motivation, and a loss of motivation causing the disabled person to retreat into the shrinking physical world of the unemployed person whose default is to sit alone at home.
The most disabled people are not necessarily the ones with the most severe conditions. I recently met a man who had very little sight left at all who nevertheless had a high quality of life, which I would attribute to the joint assets of being financially comfortable and having an active and fulfilling social life with friends and family. He could afford to go ten pin bowling with his club, and to keep updating the software that vocalises emails and text messages for him.
On the other hand, I met a man who suffered from chronic depression and anxiety. Losing his job meant that he no longer had that regular social interaction to get out of bed for every morning. And similarly, because his benefits too were small and shrinking, he couldn’t afford to go out and meet other people, improve his social skills and confidence to the point that he felt capable of looking for work.
If you just looked at them in terms of medical symptoms, you would say the first man is disabled, the second man (at the most sympathetic) has a mental health condition, or (at the least) has an attitude problem and needs to snap out of it.
There are two things we can do as a society: firstly, we need more money distributed towards disability, primarily from the state, since government benefits, wheelchair-accessible architecture, NHS services and support groups are all things that need to be funded and delivered systematically across the whole of society. And secondly, we need a culture shift: we need to stop subconsciously thinking of people with disabilities as a different species undergoing a suffering that we will never ourselves experience. We need to recognise that they are simply located in challenging circumstances, challenges which we are at least partly responsible for creating and thus partly responsible for solving. If for no reason than that we will soon be facing them too ourselves.