Disabled Doesn’t Mean Less Able
Yesterday was the last day of Southbank Centre’s incredible Unlimited Festival. The Festival celebrates the artistic vision and originality of disabled artists. Highlights for me included Claire Cunningham’s beautiful piece The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, Heart N Soul’s stunning building-wide take-over on Friday night, and Liz Carr’s thought-provoking Assisted Suicide The Musical.
As with many other people, my understanding of disability is based on the Social Model. This recognises that individuals are disabled not by their impairments but by society’s failure to consider difference in the way that environments, structures or systems are set up.
What Unlimited showcased is the rich and varied disability arts scene in the UK that’s driven by people who share the experience of being frequently disabled by society.
On the way home from the Festival last week I saw a Channel 4 billboard advertising their Paralympic coverage which I found troubling, so when I got home I adapted it and made my own version.
The original looks like this:
Mine looks like this:
My issue with their poster is that it subtly reinforces the misconception that disabled means ‘less able’. It doesn’t. To disable something means to prevent it from functioning. Loads of things get disabled: Internet connections, alarm systems, hand dryers:
As a disabled person I’m frequently prevented from functioning by a society that places physical and attitudinal barriers in my way, and it’s this that makes me a disabled person.
These posters are damaging because they equate disability with the individual – both their body and their level of ability. Disability isn’t something an individual drags round with them – people are more or less disabled, depending on the context they are in.
Paralympians are able to excel in their fields because of their talent and training, and because they have the right support. In other contexts I imagine they too experience disabling barriers – steps without ramps, people making negative assumptions about them, or cuts to vital support.
Phrases like: “Focus on ability, not disability” are unhelpful because we should absolutely be focusing on disability – it’s our shared responsibility to remove disabling barriers.
Of course that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the achievements of disabled people in the arts, in sport, and in our communities.
But at a time when 500 disabled people per week are losing vital support, when hard-won equalities are being dismantled and when 2,380 people have died after being found ‘fit to work’ we don’t need empty stereotypical slogans.
What we need is understanding, solidarity and action. To find out more and get involved, check out the DPAC website.
Everyone has skills and abilities, and as a disabled person I don’t need a poster to tell me that.
What I need is a society with fewer disabling barriers, and this can only happen if these barriers are recognised for what they are.
I honestly think this is a case where semantics are dictating how we perceive things, and I honestly think that people who hold the social view of disability should -really- consider changing the word ‘disability’ completely to describe disabled people. Unlike what your title might be saying (or maybe its saying it on purpose?), but ‘disable’ is a synonym of ‘less able’. And both are 100% accurate in describing people who do not possess the capacity to live in the world as we know it.
The big fight isn’t really so much how we perceive people, but what 1. we think people should do and be able to do with their lives, 2. how much of that is my responsibility to help you do #1.