Disability in Modern British Society

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Discuss the levels of inequality or disadvantage encountered by disability in modern British Society. Approximately 8. 5 million people in the United Kingdom are registered disabled (Office of National Statistics 2002 cited in Giddens 2006:287). Definitions of disability is important to the way in which its nature is investigated and also to its extent in society. This essay will illustrate the broad definitions of disability and the dissimilarity between disability and impairment. It will also discuss how in modern British Society inequality and disadvantages are still being encountered by the disabled and the policies that have been put into place to counteract this.

The Collins Concise English Dictionary 1986 defines disability as “The condition of being unable to perform task or function because of a physical or mental impairment”. This focuses on the inability of the individual. In contrast, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Giddens 2006:287) defines “A person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial or long term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. This definition highlights the external oppression of society rather than something lacking in the individual.

These two examples carry very different emphases on what makes an individual “disabled” and indeed accentuates the different constructions of disability in modern British Society. In the outset the individual model which is described as the dominant understanding of disability insists that individual limitations are the major root of the problems experienced by disabled people. This model is also recognized as the “medical model” as it is seen that medical specialists play an important role in the diagnosis, curative and rehabilitation to the “problems” of disabled people.

In recent decades this model has been challenged, largely by disabled people. The Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) developed a radical alternative to the individual model by disputing that there was a vital distinction between “disability” and “impairment” which were then arguably viewed as the same? The UPIAS definition of impairment is “Lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body”. (Giddens 2006:281) This definition was fundamentally accepted as a biomedical property of individuals.

Disability which UPIAS defines as “The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities”. (Giddens 2006:281).

This can also be related to how the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 defines disability in addition, how society oppresses disability rather than the individual. With UPIAS in mind the social model of disability was developed. The social model placed emphasis on why there are social, cultural and historical barriers against disabled people. Paul Hunt who was a founding member of UPIAS argued that “the problem of disability lies not only in the impairment of function and its effects on us individually, but also, more importantly, in the area of our relationship with “normal” people”.

(Hunt 1966 citied in Giddens 2006:281). Medical sociologists disparaging of the social model argue that individuals cannot always participate fully in society due to impairments including pain and intellectual limitations and a change in society cannot alter this. Arguably this is where medical sociologists do not take into account the distinction between disability and impairment. The early 1900’s gave rise to the emergence of the institutional response to disability.

Such interventions believed in the permanent nature of impairment which relied heavily on the isolation and segregation of disabled people from the “normal” community. The success of institutional segregation began to be challenged by the medical profession and the latest policy response to the “problem” of disabled people in modern British Society today is the shift from institutional care to care in the community.

The key tenet of the National Health and Community Care Act 1990 is on helping people to live safely in the community and places duty on Local Authorities to both assess and provide people with a range of social care services required to meet their needs.

Interestingly, this shift in the construction and the provision of interventions towards people with mental health problems has also led to a change in language from “retarded” or “sub-normal” to having “special needs” or “learning difficulties”. This concept of learning difficulty, of “sub-normal” people as being educatable is a view that is embedded in The Education Act of 1980. However, this changing concept of the promotion of integrating people with “special needs” into the community and equipping them with the practical and social skills needed to be independent is not without criticism.

This model is criticized as being focused on individual difference which means that rather than services being mainstreamed they remain separate which in turn leads to uncomplimentary labels such as “special needs” being given to disabled people. The past decade has seen a greater awareness of housing and the disabled. Community care has seen a rise of disabled people moving from institutions back into society.

It has become apparent that the majority of current housing is ill equipped for their needs. Many local housing departments are aiming to change this and understand how equipment and adaptations can make a huge difference and enable disabled people to live independently.

Initiatives like Lifetime homes aim to make everyone’s home more accessible generally, and if or when needed can be adapted accordingly. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2008). The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995 and was shaped to give disabled people certain legal protection from discrimination in areas such as employment. Further legislation was introduced in 1999 to work towards the elimination of discrimination against disabled people.

Still, people with impairments related to disability belong to one of the most deprived groups in the UK. At least 8. 5 million people in the UK are disabled, of whom 6. 8 million are of working age. Only around 3 million of this latter group is employed and the people in employment tends to earn less compared to non-disabled workers. (NOP 1998 cited in Giddens 2006:287). The UK governments expenditure is high for disability related spending, for example, incapacity and disability benefits, perhaps to counteract the limited number of disabled people that are employed.

Yet this further excludes the disabled from the able-bodied people of society as they can now be perceived as a burden to society and dependant on the welfare state. In recent years policies have been put into place to enable children with disabilities to enter mainstream school. The Young and Powerful are a group of disabled and non-disabled young people campaigning for inclusive education. They believe they have a right to a social and academic education, working together and the right to see each other for what they really are.

Previously it was often the parents of disabled children campaigning to have their children educated in mainstream schools yet now it appears that disabled children are learning to speak up and express their views. Unfortunately having the legal right to enter mainstream school doesn’t necessarily indicate that disabled children will be included and valued equally. Perhaps for this to take place a change is needed in the curriculum and the examination system to eradicate the assumptions of what a young person should be able to achieve. (Barton 2001).

Even though there is need for support and specialisation when entering disabled people into mainstream schools, consideration has to be given to the reality that this could cause further segregation and isolation within modern British Society. A fervent emphasis on specialisation means that pupils with special educational needs “will be the subjects of perpetual surveillance throughout the remainder of their school career and beyond”. (Allan 1999 cited in Barton 2001:117).

The above examples on the discourses of disability have demonstrated clear shifts in the ownership of the “problem” of disabled people.

Nevertheless, what is clear is, although there has been a definite change in thinking of how the “problem” of disability should be dealt with, from institutional segregation and dependence to care in the community; the medical model of disability which places emphasis on vulnerability and dependence still continues to inform most current policy legislation on disability. (Giddens 2006).

This UK social policy has led to “disablement” services that provide interventions to deal with individual need and rehabilitation rather than collective needs has very real consequences for the lives of disabled people in modern British Society. It has also established the complexities and disadvantages faced by people with a disability and/or impairment and the interventions designed to act as a solution to this social problem. Whether disabled people can ever be treated with equality alas is questionable.

Bibliography Barton, L. (2001). Disability, Politics & The Struggle For Change. London: David Fulton Publishers Ltd. Giddens, A. (2006). Sociology (5th Edition). Cambridge: Polity Press. Haralambos, M. , Heald, R. and Holborn, M. (Eds. 2004). Sociology Themes and Perspectives (6th Edition). London: HarperCollins. Hughes, G. , Marsh, I. , Pilkington, A. , Richardson, J. , Sharp, K. , Taylor, P. , Trobe, K. and Yeo, A. (1995). Sociology in Focus. Ormskirk: Causeway Press Limited Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (2007).

The impact of the Supporting People programme on adults with learning disabilities. (online). (Accessed 25th October 2008). Available from World Wide Web: http://www. jrf. org. uk/knowledge/findings/socialcare/2106. asp. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. (2008). Housing and disabled children. (online). (Accessed 25th October 2008). Available from World Wide Web: http://www. jrf. org. ukknowledge/findings/housing/2208. asp.

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