Why I Don’t ‘Have’ a Disability

I’ve just read a very well-written article that made me go ‘Yes, yes, that’s it!’ so many times you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was a new tic. But I wasn’t ticcing – it was just my reaction to a phenomenally clear piece of writing by Lisa Egan about the social model of disability.

Whether you’re very familiar with this way of thinking about disability or if you’ve never come across the social model before, you should read this article.

The social model says people aren’t disabled by their impairments but by a failure to consider difference in the way society’s organised.

For example, it’s not my tics that mean I can’t call up my Internet service provider to sort out a fault, it’s their voice-activated system that disables me and means I can’t do it myself.

Traditionally, the main way of thinking about disability was the medical model. This says people are disabled by their own impairments or differences. But, somewhat confusingly, it doesn’t really relate to medical treatments or healthcare needs – instead it’s a term used to understand the impairment as the sole disabling factor in a person’s life, whereas the social model recognises the effects of impairment but views society and the environment as potentially disabling. In short, the medical model would try and fix me while the social model would aim to fix inaccessible factors in the environment that disable me.

The social model has been very important in defining how I think about my body and my experiences. But one aspect of linguistic terminology’s confused me for a long time. When I was younger I was taught to talk and write about disability using the ‘person first’ form – ‘Person with a disability,’ not ‘Disabled person.’ This changed, and I now describe myself as a ‘disabled person’ but I never really understood why it’d changed until I read Lisa’s article. Now it makes complete sense.

The term ‘disabled person’ uses the framework of the social model to describe a person as being disabled by society, rather than as a person disabled by their condition.

If you’re tempted to dismiss this as just semantics and theorising – don’t! Read Lisa’s article.

Thinking about disability in this way is crucial if we want a society that’s fairer and more inclusive. It’s also made a tangible difference to my understanding of myself and my expectations of other people.

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