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Evaluate the social model of disability as an adequate account of the ‘differences’ between disabled and non disabled people
It has been said that the differences between disabled people and non-disabled people in western society is based on the ideology of ‘normality’, implying that disabled people are ‘abnormal’. Morris statesthat “disabled people are not normal in the eyes of non-disabled people.”(1991: 16)
Two different models have been coined to explain how society judges disabled people. Historically, the ‘individual or medical model’ was composed, which implies that it is the individual who is disabled, thus it is the individual who needs to change and adapt to society through medical methods, such as surgery or rehabilitation. Critics of this model such as Oliver (1990), conclude that it was not an adequate model, as it is society who has created disability, rather than a medical condition or physical attribute.
Since the ‘international disability movement’ in the late 1960s this ‘traditional paradigm’ (Watson, 2002) of disability therefore became archaic, as society has evolved into modernity, and it was seen as an inadequate account of understanding disabled people, and why they are excluded from mainstream society. Therefore expanding on the critique of the ‘individual’ model; a new model, based on the Marxist foundation was shaped, known as the ‘social model’, which stated that it is society who imposes the disability, by creating social barriers for people with impairment. Developing on this idea that we should be able to distinguish oppression that impaired people experience and the impairments they have, thus rather than defining disability as an impairment, it is seen as a ‘social expression’. (Shakespeare, 2002)
The social models key element, is that it ‘distinguishes’ between impairment and disability; implying that an impairment is part of the individuals identity it is “nothing less than a description of the physical body” (Oliver, 1996:35) but disability is something which is socially constructed :
“It tends to relocate the ‘problem’ from the individual to society. Disability can then be viewed as a social problem caused by social processes.”
This became an adequate account because disabled people stopped viewing themselves as ‘the problem”. It has been noted that the main progression in the research for the social model supports the idea that there is no ‘causal relationship’ between impairment and disability (Crow, 1992). The social model states that the primary cause of ‘disabled peoples marginalisation’ (Barnes, 1999: 2) is the cultural and environmental structures of society. However as Crow (1992) and Shakespeare(1993) have argued that even if social barriers are removed, the impairment still remains an important aspect of disabled people lives and identities and if we fail to recognise this then we are failing to recognise the ‘subjective reality’ of disability. The social model has avoided the issue of impairment because:
“…it is much better to say people are disabled by society but not their bodies, than to say people are disabled by society and their bodies”
Nevertheless the social model has had some positive outcomes, it has been one of the “major catalyst for the increasing politicization of large numbers of disabled people and their allies throughout the world” (Barnes, 1999: 4). Thus giving disabled people a stance in the world of politics, with this brought about many disability movements that aided towards equality within society. Supporting this model helped society dismantle many social barriers and introduce the ‘Disability Discrimination Act’ (1995) to gain equality and consequently protect people with accredited impairments from unfair treatment. Barnes (1999) saw this social change a solution to eradicate discrimination and prejudices against disability. It helped explain disablement in terms of ‘social oppression’, similar to that of other concepts within society: sexism and racism.
This led to less exploitation and more inclusion; a noticeable difference took place in the workplace and educational system. Schemes were set up, under Blair’s reign, such ‘welfare to work’ scheme. Introducing less demeaning benefits, this was the result of the ‘administrative model’ of disability, which contained a rigid definition of disability affecting the benefits that were received meaning that:
“…it would not be uncommon for a severely disabled person being denied benefits because their impairment or disability did not fit the criteria”
(French, 1994: 6).
This supports the sceptical view that society’s response to disability is understood through the medical model, ‘a cure or care’ theory. Similar to the reaction that created the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, using the medical model of disability to create its policies, in other words Society has accepted that it was the individual who had the problem, rather than a non-accommodating environment.
French (1994) further argued that it was a ‘depressing fact’ that structural obstacles still remained a prominent part of a disabled person daily routine; ‘built environment, transportation and the communication system’. This is reiterating the theory that ‘social barriers’ result in ‘social oppression’.
“Thus it is not ‘disability’ that non-disabled people fear but impairment, as ‘disabled people’ remind non-disabled people of their own mortality”
This gives evidence that oppression is not only a constant struggle with the built environment, but also a relentless struggle to gain inclusion within mainstream society. Due to discrimination and prejudices that have been formed, in large part due to the medical model, it has resulted in the ‘personal tragedy theory’, which gives the notion the non-disabled people feel those with impairment should be ‘pitied’ as they have not got a ‘fulfilling’ life. It is important to note here that the ‘social oppression’ stance does not believe that disability is the result of limitation caused by chronic illness, impairment or trauma, but the way in which we as a society categorise individuals into such groups (Barnes, 1996). A debated argument states that the difference between disabled people and non disabled people is not that we are impaired, but that we are a minority oppressed by a disabling society. (Shakespeare, 2002)
The ‘labelling theory,’ or ‘social reaction theory’ as it is sometimes known (1960), is closely linked as it stated that as a society we ‘categorise’ individuals into certain groups and treat them accordingly. Therefore as a result to these labels, disabled people will self-prophesise to the non-disabled people’s prejudices and it will become part of their identity. This was an important issue for disabled people, as a main obstacle for both disabled and non-disabled people is ‘inclusion’ within society. Our society Barnes (1996) states, seems ‘pre-occupied’ with peoples abilities, and thus we tend to segregate both disabled and non-disabled people. This theory has a massive impact on disabled people’s life, as it has appeared to be the case that historically they are excluded from the workplace and education.
With the ‘disabled people’s movement’, emerged the independent living era. Normality is linked with the perception of independence and thus binary to this, abnormality must be connected to dependence (Barnes, 1999). However Barnes (1999) continues to state that even by basic necessities we are all interdependent, that is we need to rely on each other in some form, for our society to function positively. “There is no qualitative difference between disabled and non-disabled people with respect to basic human needs” (Barnes, 1999: 20).
The ‘social model’ was widely accepted amongst disabled people as an adequate account that identified the differences between disabled and non-disabled people. Using the ‘social model’, Finkelstein, 1981 argued that if non-disabled people were to be confronted with ‘social barriers’ then they would become ‘equally disabled’, as society is not accommodating to their needs. Plus another view of this is that it is impractical to remove of social barriers from society to accommodate all, as removing obstacles for certain impairment may create more obstacles for others. Furthermore it is not possible to dismantle all barriers created, as some of them are ‘inextricable aspects of impairments’ and thus were not constructed by the environment. A question asked by Tom Shakespeare “if someone has an impairment which causes constant pain, how can the social environment be implicated?” (2002)
An issue that has been raised is even if we take away the social obstacles to disability, the impairment and the pain still remains dominant as the social model “does not attempt to deal with the personal restrictions of impairment but the social barriers of disability’” (Oliver, 1996: 39).Crow (1996) explained how the model lacks the personal experience of pain which is intrinsic with certain types of impairments. Thus from this stance society, and the environment cannot be blamed for imposing difficulties on all impaired people, because some impairment contain difficulties in their own right and these should not be ignored. For if they are, it may in fact, do more harm than good, and cause more problems for the individual.
This critique of the social model does not make it an inadequate account or invalidate the paradigm, but simple states that there is need for improvement. It is not possible for our society to ignore impairments, the same as we should not be causing more problems through social barriers; Crow (1992) debates that full integration of ‘experiences of impairment, with the experiences of disability‘ is the way forward for the social model. The fact that the model did not address the issue of ‘multiple oppression’ was also as a critique of the ‘social model’, other social groups such as feminist have argued that the ‘social model’ does not take in to account other forms of oppression; sexism or racism, and thus cannot be generalised, as it does not reflect the experiences of all disabled people. Cashling (1993) seems to think that postmodernist thinkers will explain the concept of oppression within disability simply as a manifestation of society’s hatred; however this has yet to be seen.
Some sociologist has explained that the social model needs to be refined, noting that both social disability and medical impairments coexist; thus noting that people are disabled by both social barriers and their bodies. Oliver “has argued that an adequate social theory model of disability must contain a theory of impairment” (Oliver. 1996: 42)
Others have stated that the ‘British social model’ is outdated and is no longer useful within our society and instead of redeveloping the idea “supplying alternatives to compensate for the inadequacies of the social model” (Shakespeare, 2002) it should be abolished creating space to begin again. The reason for this radical approach Shakespeare (2002) continues to state that the social model is causing more problems than it is solving and he wishes to construct a “more adequate approach to disability politics, based on materialist ontology of embodiment” (Shakespeare, 2002) . By more adequate it meant that it needs to take into account every aspect of a disabled person to truly understand and begin to eradicate discrimination and oppression, which is still an important issue for society in all aspects of social categories. For this to happen as Crow (1992) has previously stated, an understanding of pain needs to be produced and not ignored; considering that physical attributes of impairment and social construction of disability can coexist and that for the fight towards equality to be successful it needs to be explain that “normality” should not be classified as the majority.
In conclusion it has been noted that the social model of disability has increased awareness and introduced many positive aspects to society. Such as the explanation of oppression for disabled people, giving them a stance within the political society, enabling them to create policies which help ease the problems of certain issues that have been social constructed, through previous models such as the medical model. However neither the medical nor social model creates a complete adequate account of the differences between disabled and non-disabled people because they both have flaws. Thus it would not be a positive direction for society to abolish both models, it would be more successful if they conjoined the important aspects of both models, to form a model that is able to evaluate and explain disability, impairment, and oppression in terms of discrimination, prejudices and structural characteristics of society. Creating a model that makes it possible and plausible to eliminate as much inequality for disabled people as possible. However as Shakespeare (2002) states it is evermore difficult to achieve a complete model of disability, mainly because there is no clear cut definition of disability. Shakespeare (2002) argues that we should focus more on the relationship between impairment and embodiment, rather than the ‘definitional’ link between impairment and disability.
Therefore our main focus for the future should be to eradicate the dichotomies, and encourage more integration within society through changing architecture or benefits. It is an illusion to imply that in post modernity the possibility for all impairments to be ‘barrier free’, however if we take the view that no one can do everything, everyone, even non-disabled people have flaws, but if we take into account all impairments and try to eradicate as many barriers as possible, both economically and socially, then we will be heading in the right direction for an equal society, and thus will be able to create an adequate account of disability.
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