All for one and one for all

Adopting impairment-specific identities is bad for all disabled people, says Andy Rickell.

Many disabled people think that their impairment is the worst and that the barriers and problems they face are the worst and they should be most entitled to special treatment. In a sense this is an understandable reaction to a medical model view of the world which lumps disabled people together as ‘the disabled’ and uses that term to imply a range of negative attitudes towards the whole group including in particular general intellectual incompetence, poor status and societal exclusion. It is right to want to kick against that.

One can see the superficial benefits that encourage disabled people to want to identify only with their own impairment-specific group – an immediate recognition of a common identity, similar experiences of barriers and problems and hence common interests in the solutions specific to those issues, and the beginnings of being able to create a positive personal identity by being seen as distinct from disabled people with other impairments. So impairment-specific groups and organisations have become popular under the traditional model of disability.

But to choose to focus on impairment-specific identity actually works against the very thing those people really want. Firstly, whereas the fights for improved conditions for women and civil rights for black people could identify capable leaders that the whole group could unify behind, the fragmenting of disabled people by impairment means disabled people have always struggled to recognise leaders from other impairment groups, or even identify that they had common cause with other disabled people at all.

Secondly, the campaign for improved resources has been confounded by the split into impairment groups. In a world where disabled people are currently a low political priority, each impairment group is pushed towards taking the easy option of trying to get a larger slice of the small disability slice of the public cake at the expense, in practice, of other impairment groups if that disability slice is not increased. But if they worked together and campaigned for a bigger disability slice, every impairment group could benefit.

Thirdly, getting real clout in politics and society is a numbers game. 12 million disabled people have enormous power; to divide into impairment groups just reduces the impact for all of us. And increasingly the government, beginning to take on the implications of the social model, wants to work with disabled people on a pan-impairment basis, so increasingly the impairment-specific groups will lose out.

In any case, calling ourselves ‘disabled people’ under the social model is a powerful positive identity – a group of diverse people who experience similar discrimination in society, willing to band together to fight for each and every disabled person’s interests, and not insisting on our own needs first.

Impairment-specific groups need to think how best they can engage with all other disabled people. Perhaps it even needs a change of their charitable objects so that those organisations can band together with other disabled people and are not obliged by charity law to fight a narrow corner, one that increasingly contradicts their own interests.

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