Disability and our just deserts

As a group of people joins our community, Ian Macrae reflects on why they feel they “deserve” to be disabled. The European Court of Justice has ruled that obesity is “a disability”. This follows the case of a Danish childminder, Karsten Kartoff, who was sacked when it emerged his physique prevented him from being able to tie the shoe laces of his young charges.

Whether or not this ruling is valid or just or socially appropriate or ethically right is not something on which I would care to express a view. Semantically, however, I do have a problem.

It is all too common for people, most notably and often journalists to describe impairments and conditions as “disabilities”. This in turn gives rise to the notion of “people with disabilities”, meaning those of us who have a whole range of physical and mental impairments, disorders and conditions.

Putting it personally, blindness is my impairment. My “disability” consists of a whole series of barriers, attitudes, assumptions, denials of opportunity and lack of information and access which are external to me. To put it briefly, I am disabled not by my blindness but by society.

This is a concept familiar to anyone who knows about the social model of disability. So, to be necessarily pedantic, I am a disabled person, not a person with a disability. For one thing, the social aspects of my being disabled are many.

In the debate surrounding the obesity question – is it or is it not a “disability” – putting aside the inherent fault in the question, another notion was raised which tweaked my interest.

During a radio interview a journalist named Helen Leahy, who identified herself as obese, argued that people with that condition perhaps “deserved disability status”. What she and the interviewer went on to show was that obese people needed the concessions available to some of us: the perks, if you like, of being disabled.

To be truthful, these, while valuable, are precious few. For me they’d amount to a blue parking badge and my Transport For London Freedom Pass. True there is also the soon to be demised Disability Living Allowance but the jury is surely out on whether what this benefit gives people outweighs the turbulence and hoop-jumping getting it brings to people’s lives.

But there are also many aspects of being disabled in Britain today which, I would argue are things that no one should be said to “deserve”.

Hate crime against disabled people is disproportionately high and rising; more low level casual abuse is all too common. Both of these things are compounded by the perception of us as cheats and scroungers which it suits the current Government’s agenda to present; we live with or under a benefits system which seeks to demean us at every turn.

And that’s before you add in the more general and endemic issues of prejudice and discrimination which we encounter when looking for employment, getting into restaurants or trying to do something as mundane as boarding a bus.

So if, as appears, obese people are to join this community, they will certainly have to be prepared to take the good with the bad: maybe some of them feel and believe that they are already sharing some of that negative experience. Maybe too they will begin to feel some of the pride we have in our disabled identity.

But as for deserving, all I would say is that really as disabled people we deserve better.

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