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Discuss how oppression related to your chosen area can manifest itself in institutions and societies, and how it can impact on the lives of individuals and communities. Consider and make specific reference to the social policy response.
The term oppression is not simple to define. It is complex and can take many different forms. Sometimes it is clearly visible and at other times more subtle and difficult to identify. The purpose of this research will be to explore oppression and how it can manifest itself in institutions and societies and how it can impact on the lives of individuals and communities. In order to explore oppression this research will use people with a learning disability at its focus. Firstly this research will look at what oppression is and how oppression of people with learning disabilities has come to manifest itself in institutions and societies. This research will then explore the oppression faced by people with a learning disability and the legislation that challenges oppression. Theory such as Thompson’s (2006) PCS model will be explored in order to aid an understanding of how oppression and discrimination operate within society. Finally this research will explore vales and ethics necessary to promote anti-oppressive practice. Throughout the assignment a social policy response to oppression will be considered.
Thompson (2006) describes oppression as the inhuman or degrading treatment of individuals or groups. It is the unjust and unfair treatment of these individuals or groups of people through the negative and degrading exercise of power, both individually and structurally (Thomas and Wood: 46). “Power is used to implement unfair judgements, often widely, over specific people or groups within society” (Thomas and Wood: 46). At a personal level oppression can lead to demoralisation and a lack of self-esteem, while at a structural level it can lead to the denial of rights and citizenship (Dalrymple ad Burke 2006: 121). Any factors which may perceive a person as being different from the majority increase the possibility of oppression.
Discrimination and oppression are often found when considering people with learning disabilities. This could be due to the confusion between mental illness and learning disability and also the way people with a learning disability have been perceived over time (Thomas and Woods 2003: 49). Thompson suggests a four part models that can be used to inform institutional and societal views and provide an understanding of how people with learning disabilities are viewed (Thompson 1997: 151). The four models include the threat to society model, the medical model, the subnormality model and the special needs model. Thompson (1997) highlights that the first model illustrates the majority view of society at the beginning of the 20th century. “Social and cultural constructs manifest themselves in a fear of abnormality in relation to disability” (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 17). This societal view believed that people with physical or learning disabilities should be contained in special institutions as they were a threat to society. This model led to the medical model which believed in using a scientific approach to manage people and control and contain what society saw as abnormal behaviour (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 14). The medical model became predominant in health and social care and conflicts between the medical model and social model are still apparent in social policy for vulnerable groups (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 14). The third model Thompson suggests which can be used to inform institutional and societal views which provide an understanding of how people with learning disabilities are viewed is the subnormality model. This model is the measurement of medical impairment and the ability to achieve academically (Thomas and Wood 2003: 49). An IQ test was invented to be used to diagnose a learning disability and to identify whether the IQ level was below normal (70), if it was below normal subnormality was diagnosed highlighting differences leading to oppression (Thomas and Wood 2003: 49). The final model Thompson used in gaining an understanding of how people with a learning disability are viewed is the special needs model. This model considers integration into society but relies on the identification of the special needs of the individual (Thomas and Wood 2003: 49). By using this model, similar to the subnormality model, people’s differences are highlighted, making integration into society more difficult. Integration into society is difficult due to the fact that “people are fitted into society and society does not adapt or change to accommodate them” (Thomas and Wood 2003: 49). Thomson suggests that elements of each of these models may affect current societal attitudes. Each could play its part in explaining the reason for discrimination and oppression towards people with a learning disability. “What all these models have in common is a tendency to marginalise and disempower, to a greater or lesser extent, people with a medical impairment” (Thomson 1997: 152).
As mentioned earlier the medical model and social model for understanding people with learning disabilities is still in conflict. Historically perspectives on cure, research and treatment have heavily influenced how disabled people are viewed and treated within society (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 59). The focus on the medical model rather than the social model can be seen in language up until very recently. Terms such as ‘spastic’ and ‘retard’ can be seen in policy and medical procedures throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries implying lack of function and therefore lack of worth (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 259). The medical model seems to focus mainly on the impairment and ignore how society reinforces barriers for disabled people and so the social model of disability emerged (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 260). From the social model perspective it is society and structures that are the more significant problem rather than the illness or disability itself (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 261). The media is a powerful institution for shaping societal views and continues to portray people with learning disabilities negatively which majorly contributes to structural inequalities and oppression (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 262). The Marxist perspective on sociology saw the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism as increasing widespread social oppression. With labour power at this time seen as such a huge commodity and “as society is about the relationship between capital and labour, the disabled person is of no use or value” (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 262). Learning disability made it difficult to work which led to institutionalisation and segregation. Statistics show that fewer than 5,000 disabled people in England were confined to asylums but by the 1900’s this had increased to 74,000 (http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=702). Oppression from this perspective must be challenged by looking at key structural issues such as political or economic organisations, the media and areas such as employment (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 261). It is these barriers to participation in society rather than the disability itself that leads to societal and institutional widespread oppression of individuals and communities (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 261). The social model of disability rejects the medical model stating that it is society that causes disability not impairment (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 262).
Having explored how oppression of people with learning disabilities has sociologically developed over time and the types of oppression faced by people with learning disabilities, this research will now explore legislation which challenges oppression and attempts to promote anti-oppressive practice and empowerment. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced to alleviate discrimination on the grounds of disability. Disability in this Act is defined as “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on ability to carry out normal day to day activities” (Brayne and Martin 1997: 416). This Act creates legislation which deems discrimination on grounds of disability in employment unlawful except for certain circumstances such as the police or armed forces and highlights guidelines of how disabled people should be treated at work or in places of education (Thomas and Wood 2003: 52). The Human Rights Act 1998 was created to attempt to promote individual rights. For people with learning disabilities this means that the Act may help them to live fully and freely, on equal terms with non-disabled people (Thomas and Wood 2003: 52). In terms of economics The Independent Living Fund and the Community Care Act 1996 aim to help disabled people to control and organise their own care and budgets (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 259). Disabled people have become more politicised and campaigned for change, an example being the Disability Rights Commission which advocates for a rights to independent living (Llewellyn, Agu and Mercer 2008: 264). The Adults with Incapacity Act 2000 introduces a new way of supporting adults who do not have the capacity to make decisions for themselves due to impairment (Thomas and Woods 2003: 53). This Act realises that although some complex decisions may not be able to be made other more simple and straightforward choices can be. The Act enables adults with incapacity to maximise their own ability, encourage the development of new skills and ensure that whichever intervention is provided is the least intrusive possible (Thomas and Woods 2003: 54). There is much limitation within legislation through weaknesses of wording and restricted implementation which does not always reflect anti-oppressive practice towards people with a learning disability, however when used positively the law can be used to promote self-determination, equality and rights, key aspects of deconstructing a socially and culturally oppressive society. (Dalrymple and Burke 2006: 91).
Thompson (2006) saw anti-discrimination and anti-oppressive practice as occurring on three levels: personal, cultural and societal and developed a PCS model to challenge oppression. He believed that in order to both understand and tackle oppression looking at the individual alone is not enough, a consideration of the individual, cultural and structural factors is necessary (Thompson 2006: 30). The personal level is the individual level of thought, feelings, attitudes and actions (Thomson 1997: 20). As individuals we have our own beliefs and values which are “heavily influenced both by our past experiences and our current understanding of ourselves and the society in which we live” (Parrott 2006: 13). Individual values and beliefs are learnt from a variety of sources including family, school, culture and religion as well as the society in which we live, political influence and the media (Thomas and Woods 2002: 55). Personal values are intrinsic to the culture in which we live and in each culture certain social and cultural values will be exercised (Thomas and Woods 2002: 55). These cultural values influence our individual ideas of what is acceptable behaviour and how to treat people who are different and so cultural values can underpin how we act towards people with a learning disabilities which may lead to discrimination and oppressive attitudes (Thomas and Woods 2002: 55). The structural level of oppression refers to the network of social divisions and relates to the ways in which oppression is institutionalised and ‘sewn in’ to the fabric of society (Thomson 1997: 20). People with learning disabilities can be affected through social division and the power of society in deciding what is acceptable behaviour and which groups of society require and deserve support (Thomas and Woods 2002: 56). By showing how “society influences cultural views, which may in turn impact upon personal values and beliefs” Thomson highlights the importance of recognising all three levels at which discrimination and oppression operate (Thomas and Woods 2002: 56). In order to challenge and combat oppression it is essential to have an awareness of the types and ways oppression can occur. At a personal level it is important for social workers to critically reflect on the different values they may hold in order to facilitate a greater ability to challenge oppression and re-evaluate practice (Thomas and Woods 2002: 56). At a cultural level the ability to change attitudes becomes harder however it is essential for practitioners to attempt to promote anti-oppressive practice at this level as well as structurally. Thomson (1997) states that in order to promote anti-oppressive practice on all three levels individuals must collectively challenge the “dominant discriminatory culture and ideology and, in doing so, playing at least a part in the undermining of the structures which support and are supported by that culture” (Thomson 1997: 23).
As mentioned previously, values are intrinsic to practitioners being able to practise and promote anti-oppressive practice. Guidelines for professional behaviour have been developed through professional values into a code of ethics which describe behaviours in the form of standards and multi-disciplinary reference points for social care practitioners. The values associated with social work are incorporated within the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) code of Ethics and Codes of Conduct for Social Care Workers and their Employers published by the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) in 2002 (Dalrymple and Burke 2006: 87). According to Brayne and Carr (2005) “Practitioners have statutory duties, underpinned by professional codes and personal values to support the most vulnerable members of society” (Brayne and Carr 2005 cited in Dalrymple and Burke 2006: 97). Through these various codes of ethics the promotion of rights, choice, positive education and awareness in society are highlighted which challenge oppression with people with learning disabilities as well as many oppressed groups within society (Thomas and Woods 2002: 61).
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