Disabilities, differently abled, impaired, handicapped. There have been and continue to be so many words that can be used to label and categorise a person with a disability. There is no question that I as an autistic person am a disabled person. I contend though, that disability is not due to being impaired by physical or mental impairments but by the social construct within which I inhabit and go about making life.
To illustrate this idea consider a building and an entranceway. The entrance way is a narrow doorway which has 4 stairs leading up to it. This is the only entrance to the building. Now consider a person who relies on a wheel chair for mobility. They are unable to access the building. This person’s access to the building is not because they are reliant on a wheelchair, but, they are impaired from entering the building due to the underlying attitude of society that builds an entrance to a building which does not accommodate for difference. It impairs those in wheelchairs from entering by using a narrow door and stairs. It is the social construct and the human constructed infrastructure which creates the disability not the physical impairment.
There are different models of disability. The most prominent being The medical model of disability and the social model of disability. It is often the medical model that our thinking emanates from rather than the social model. But what are these models and what difference does it make. Well, a huge difference actually.
The Medical Model…
The medical model of disability is an impairment based model that relies on a narrative of brokenness and need to be repaired to measure up to the so-called ideal of normality.
According to the medical model of disability, ‘disability’ is a health condition dealt with by medical professionals. People with disability are thought to be different to ‘what is normal’ or abnormal. ‘Disability’ is seen ‘to be a problem of the individual. From the medical model, a person with disability is in need of being fixed or cured. From this point of view, disability is a tragedy and people with disability are to be pitied. The medical model of disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be.
It’s very easy to see that in this model disabled people will quickly become disenfranchised and objectified. Very quickly to they become an entry in the liability column of societies balance sheet. This is a despicable situation. People are not object. They are people, human persons. Complete human persons with emotions, feelings, dreams, hopes, hurts, pain and joys just like human persons who are not disabled.
The medical model of disability is itself a liability to a progressive accepting positive society.
The Social Model…
The social model of disability takes a somewhat different view of disability and defines it in a far more, in my opinion, life-giving way. It promotes humanity, difference, and equality of all people. Disabled and non-disabled alike.
The social model sees ‘disability’ is the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.
The key here is that the social construct is what impairs not the physiological issue that the disabled person deals with. The social model does not decry the fact that there are real physical, intellectual or psychological issues that disabled people face, but that it is not those issues that restrict them from full participation in society, it is in fact the social construct which does that.
Let’s be clear a disabled person has the same human rights as a non disabled person. The very same right to pursue a career, a family, a dream. This should not even be up for consideration. But a long as we do not operate with an understanding of how the medical model of disability impairs this, society will not be able to achieve this and the rights of people with disabilities will be at risk and people with disabilities will be at high risk of being treated as objects of society rather than subjects in society.
Physical disabilities are often easy to see and it’s simple to see how the physical infrastructure can be instrumental in disabling the person in a wheelchair for example, from fully participating in society. The invisible disabilities, often can go unnoticed, especially in how the social construct inhibits and derails the attempts of people with these disabilities to equally participate in society.
A personal perspective.
Employment success, career success and therefore successfully providing for one’s own needs, and the needs of their loved ones is a huge, a massive, implication for people with disabilities. As an autistic person I can fully relate to this. Employment has always been a massive struggle for me to negotiate and to be successful at.
I am an intelligent and capable person. I hold a couple of bachelor degrees, I am able to adapt to a range of mental and physical tasks well. I am able to master skills reasonably well and execute tasks with precision and often speed. I often describe myself as a jack of many things but a master of nothing, this is really a statement of having tried a range of career options but never mastering any of them.
The reality is that I have not mastered them due to the social construct rather than the ability to perform what I have been employed to do. I have never lost a position due to failure to complete the tasks assigned to me. I have always either been terminated or left due to impending termination, for failure in negotiating the expected social and workplace political expectations.
The task of obtaining employment is in itself disabling to me. The process of obtaining a position is inherently social. It is based on human interaction in a contrived and power unequal environment. This environment is often exacerbated by it being a panel of three or four others.
The reality is that my ability to be successful in that situation has little or no bearing on my ability to perform the tasks and duties of the position. How does answering contrived questions actually have any bearing on my ability to manage a classroom and impart learning to a group of 20 or so students? I don’t see how it does in anyway at all.
I am a qualified, and I believe, capable primary school teacher, however I have not been able to successfully hold a position in a primary school for more than a 12 month period. This has not been due to my teaching ability or teaching success, but due to my failure to negotiate the social/political environment of the staff interactions outside the classroom and additionally the re-interview process.
I am impaired in this situation by the expectation and attitudinal reality that I will and do understand the social rules, the nuanced communications and body language situations of the school. For example, I should know that when a superior requests my opinion on a matter that they don’t really want my opinion but that what is really going on is that they are ensuring it looks as though they have consulted others regarding the issue at hand. Or, even though it is understood that autistic people often struggle with maintaining eye contact, the expectation that I do so remains in place, and so when I am unable to maintain this eye contact I am considered, rude, evasive, suspicious or devious, rather than the reality that I just can’t do it without causing myself intense internal turmoil and physical discomfort.
Enough of the personal sob story. I share it not to garner sympathy but to illustrate the point of how the social constructs failure to accommodate results in being disabled from full and equal participation in society.
Employment is a massive issue for Autistic people. Statistics show that even in regard to other cohorts of disabled groups that we fare terribly when it comes to employment success. The vast majority of autistic people are unemployed or underemployed. This is not due to an inability to work but an unwillingness of the world of work to put in place accommodations to assist us to do so successfully.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for the skills and contributions to be honoured and valued, despite the need for accommodations.
I am ready willing and able be employed and to work hard. I just need to find an employer willing to accommodate and support me to do so. I don’t think it is asking too much. Do you?