We seem to live in a society with very polarised attitudes towards disabled people. On the one hand, disabled people are often told that they are “brave” or “inspirational”, even when they are just doing normal, everyday things non-disabled people take for granted. On the other hand, they are being stigmatised and labelled “scroungers” by a government increasingly determined to slash the welfare bill by driving through cuts to disability benefits and scrapping and limiting funds designed to enable disabled people to work, study and lead independent lives.
I recently went to a fascinating talk by Tom Shakespeare, the academic, disability rights campaigner and sociologist, who explored these themes about social attitudes towards disability and why some disabled people become high achievers, but so many others don’t.
When I first read the title of his talk “Can disabled people fly high? Removing barriers to achievement”, I must admit that I thought that it sounded a bit cheesy. But I wanted to find out more. I have heard Tom Shakespeare speak before about disability and I have found him really insightful and knowledgeable about the subject.
I had spoken to the organisers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine beforehand about what communication support they could provide. I am really grateful to them and STAGETEXT for being able to provide live speech-to-text reporting of the event at the last minute, as well as providing a BSL interpreter. It meant that the event was fully inclusive to all deaf and hard of hearing people, including non-BSL users like myself.
Tom spoke about a lot of areas related to the social and medical models of disability, as well as barriers to achievement and what makes a successful disabled “high flyer”. I just want to focus on a couple of things he said which I could really identify with and which really seemed to resonate with me as a deafened person living with a disability myself.
He spoke about disability being diverse and complex. Disabled people are not alike and they differ in many ways. Even people with the same disability or medical condition do not have the same experience of it and often react to it in different ways. We cannot compare “apples with pears” so we shouldn’t generalise and make assumptions about different people living with a similar disability.
He explained that this is why the work capability assessments introduced by the Department of Work and Pensions do not work because they make assessments about disabled peoples’ capability to work based on general assumptions and criteria, which don’t match their individual complex medical and social care needs.
He also talked about the “paradox of disability”, which I can really relate to. When you first get an impairment or disability, especially if it’s unexpected, it’s understandably very difficult for most people to deal with it. Unsurprisingly, you feel really depressed and people often find themselves having panicky, suicidal thoughts. You think that life couldn’t possibly get any worse and go through a whole spectrum of emotions, just as if you are going through a grieving process.
Then you get used to it and after a while, you find that living with it is not as bad as you thought it would be. Human beings are incredibly resilient and you often adapt pretty well to your new disability and changed circumstances. He said that according to academic studies, most people with a disability report a “high quality of life” against the odds, as long as you are not living in constant pain.
I can definitely relate to this and think that although I went through a very difficult time in my life when I lost my hearing unexpectedly, eventually I learned to adapt to it, although it was very difficult to communicate with other people.
Now I think my life has changed to such an extent that there have been a lot of positive things, which have come out of my experience. I have met some really great people along my journey, have changed a lot as a person and I am now looking forward to the future with renewed positivity and confidence.
Tom also talked about the common factors, which tend to make a disabled person become a ‘high flyer’. Having a good education was a big factor, according to his research. But the other common factor driving the success of disabled high achievers was they had worked incredibly hard to get there. They have struggled so hard against the odds that they are more determined than anyone else to make it.
For example, look at the hugely successful Paralympic athletes. These are clearly exceptional people, who have pushed themselves beyond their limits and exceeded everyone’s expectations of them. They are incredibly positive role models for disabled people. But are their achievements also achievable for the majority of disabled people? Do non-disabled people think all disabled people should be more like these role models?
Tom said that the majority of disabled people, like non-disabled people, just want to lead ordinary lives. They just want to have a normal job, a family and all the things that non-disabled people want too. ‘
We need to recognise that ‘high flyers’ are exceptional people in any walk of life, whether disabled or non-disabled people. They do not represent the majority of people like us in our society.
He also talked about how disabled people are often told by non-disabled people that they are “brave” or “inspirational” etc., often just for doing normal everyday things that most people take for granted like getting dressed. This can come across as being incredibly patronising to a disabled person, when all they want is to be accepted by people and treated no different to anyone else.
On the other hand, I do think that some disabled people do some incredibly inspiring things and I am truly in awe of them. I don’t think that most non-disabled people mean to sound patronising at all. They just can’t imagine themselves doing the things disabled people are doing, if they were in their shoes. The problem is when they praise disabled people for doing normal things that they themselves take for granted. They should just treat disabled people as they would others.
What about the barriers to achievement for disabled people? Tom talked about some of the external barriers to achievement, such as society’s attitudes towards disabled people and barriers to employment. According to government figures, 48% of disabled people are in employment, compared to 79% of non-disabled people. But the gap between the employment rate of disabled people versus non-disabled people has remained static, at around 31%, for over a decade.
It is clearly more difficult for a disabled person to become employed than a non-disabled person but the reasons for it are complex. Employers’ attitudes towards disabled people during the recruitment process remain a huge barrier, despite the existence of the Equalities Act. But Tom also said that there were also internal barriers holding disabled people back. This is due to psychosocial factors such as a lack of confidence in themselves or a doubt that they could actually do the job, despite having the necessary qualifications and experience.
Disabled people also don’t push themselves when it comes to seeking a promotion or a better skilled job. They often stay in low skilled, lower grade jobs. This is because they feel comfortable and accepted in the work environment they are in, so they don’t want to risk a new environment where others might not be so accepting of them and their disability.
During the Q&A session at the end I asked Tom what he thought about the impact of the government’s recent cuts to communication support for deaf people on the ‘Access to Work’ scheme. He replied that it was a “no brainer”. By limiting deaf people’s access to the communication support they need to carry out their jobs, it is obvious that they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs in the same way. It would reduce their chances of being successful in their careers and increase unemployment among deaf and disabled people. He said he thought the government’s decision was “blinkered”.
Overall, I agree with Tom that in terms of how and why some disabled people reach their potential and achieve great things and others don’t, we can’t just blame it all on external factors such as society and employers’ attitudes towards them. It’s a complex situation. To put it in his words “We need to strike a balance between recognising the role of oppressive barriers and celebrating individual personal qualities”.