In what ways is Disability Constructed by Society? Essay

This essay looks at how society today is built around disabled people. It explores the differential opinions on disability and it’s meaning, how society responds and blames the individual and the mis-treatment of the individual themselves. Through examining different sociological models such as ‘social’ and ‘medical’, looking at theories such as ‘the built environment’, at language and media representations and also the effects on education, industry and politics, I aim to answer the question as to how disability is constructed by society. Social disadvantage towards disabled people is one of the most pressing social and political issues today”.

Past policies on disability seem to blame the individual, new policies should be directed at changing society. The meaning of the word disabled causes great debate. The ‘dis’ suffix at the beginning of the word gives a negative feel to the word. Other negative words in the English dictionary beginning with ‘dis’ include discard, disappoint, disrupt. The same dictionary defines the word disabled as: “Made ineffective, unfit or incapable”.

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Disabled people find themselves labelled with this definition giving them a negative approach to life. The word implies that they are unfit for anything, that they are incapable of effectiveness in any field. Although the evidence of economic disadvantage is clear, there is disagreement among social scientists and politicians about the meaning of disability. Government and medical definitions tend to focus on the individuals limitations. Disabled people are disadvantaged because their impairment prevents them from doing things that other people take for granted.

To begin with I will examine the ‘medical model’ and how its theory and definition relates to disabled people. Firstly, what is the medical model? The medical model is an individualistic approach to understanding people in society. It is based upon the idea of modern Western medicine. There is a constant battle of disease between Doctors and illnesses. Doctors are thought of as good and disease the enemy. Doctors hold the medical model with the ability to cure the individual of their illness. As disease is thought of as a bad thing, people with diseases are excluded from society.

The medical model sees disabled people as people in need of care. Relating to disabled people, shouldn’t we as a society not think of them as a battle but welcome them back in society? We should adapt ourselves to live with people suffering from incurable diseases such as being disabled; this evidently is not the case and the opinions of society as a whole today. Next I will look at the ‘social model’. This is a sort of continuation from the ‘medical model’, the main difference being that the medical model bases its theory on the individual where as the social model looks at how society is built up, adapting to the individual or not.

Disabled social scientists have defined disability in terms of society’s response to disabled people. The social model argues that a social environment excludes people with impairments. With relation to the disabled individual it places a person’s impairment in the perspective of the social and environmental factors, which create disabling barriers to their participation in society. An example of this could be public transport services and how they discriminate against a particular group of people or individual by not having disabled seats or ramps to allow access.

This is identified as institutional discrimination. We as a society should ensure that the needs and rights of people with disabilities are enshrined in all aspects of everyday life. Unfortunately the needs of disabled people are not always recognised and they are socially disadvantaged in many different ways. A vital thing to mention as a lead on from the medical and social models is the definition of a built environment, and how exactly it is based around the discrimination of disabled individuals or groups in society.

A seminal article by Vic Frankelstein (1975) states, “a world is imagined in which wheel-chair users and able-bodied people lead completely segregated lives”. It is this separation that is the problem with society and how we live our lives. We shouldn’t have to live in segregation. We are one big community and so should adapt to welcome smaller minorities such as disabled people. The built environment in Britain tends to neglect the needs of disabled people. This is because able-bodied people are of a higher-level percentage in population compared to disabled people.

Shops are therefore built without easy access, as are cinemas, restaurants, offices and so on. Disabled people are therefore discriminated against leisure and indeed work. Other areas to study are language and media representations. The words or phrases used to describe or identify disabled people are often derogatory and thought of as abusive. Some phrases lead the disabled individual to feel dehumanised or un-welcome in society. Words such as ‘spastic’ and ‘mong’ often come as second-tongue to people and are not only used with disabled people but also with able-bodied people as a form of abuse.

Language itself is used in media representations. Although not a great deal of research has been carried out into media representations there is definitely some evidence to show that disabled people are made out to be “sinister and evil”, as “atmosphere or curio” or made out to be “an object of violence”. It is small wonder that the word “disabled” immediately provides us with the image of wheelchairs, and concepts such as dependent and pitiable. Given the situation it doesn’t come as a shock that media representation of the disabled are limited and largely stereotypical.

If the word “disabled” can be represented in such a simple definition or concept as the one above, we are reducing a large group of human beings to something less complicated than your average road sign. There is a great deal of prejudices attached to the representation of disability. In magazines, the only images of the disabled we tend to see are those in charity advertisements, and their disability is the main focus of the representation. Often we are encouraged to pity the person represented, or give them support in another way. In soap operas, there have been known to be disabled characters.

Their stories are often based around struggle and how terrible it is that a human being should be reduced to such a broken shell. Finally there are three other sections to consider with the subject of disability, Education, Industry and Politics. Disabled people are particularly disadvantaged in education. A large number of children and young people continue to be educated in segregated special schools. This means that the children being sent there are only mixing with children like themselves and not other kinds of people in society.

This should not be the case. Disabled children are disadvantaged from mainstream schools. These schools should adapt their structure and teaching so that everyone can attend. Sending disabled children to a ‘special’ school is discrimination and unfair on them. Because the children are educated in ‘special’ schools they may not obtain the same sort of exam grades as children in mainstream schools. This puts them in a bad position for later in life when it comes to finding a job. Disabled people are six times more likely to be refused a job.

This is because of two reasons: firstly the employees are reluctant to adapt their working system to allow disabled people to work there and secondly because of the prejudice built up over time against disabled people. After the development of industrial organisation all the jobs since given to disabled people have become too labour intensive. This caused the disabled people to be discriminated yet again. Most problems regarding disabled people come from working age families.

As mentioned above, people are excluded from satisfactory employment opportunities. 45% of working age disabled people were unemployed, compared to 12% of non-disabled people; 29% of disabled workers were in part-time jobs, compared to 23% of non-disabled people; 50% of disabled workers were in manual jobs, compared to 40% of non-disabled workers” Finally politics. Disabled people themselves tend not to have positive role models to aspire to. Because of this, the individual themselves could develop a negative outlook on life and personal identity. They lack self-confidence and also self esteem. All the views mentioned above portray some form of negative approach towards disabled people.

The medical model for example blames the individual making them feel as though it’s their fault that they are whom they are. The social model states that we as a society should adapt to welcome in smaller groups of people to make life as enjoyable as possible, for as many people as possible. Evidence such as public services and leisure activities are then mentioned to show that institutional discrimination is taking place, again showing a negative approach. The built environment mentions able-bodied people as being “the people in control”, the “ones holding the reins”.

This leads to the neglect of disabled people as the environment and society is built around able-bodied people. Disabled people are part of a small minority of the population and have therefore escaped sociological notice; they are forced to live in a social prison. Policy for disabled people should now be aiming to change society and not to blame the disabled individual. What happens to disabled people is a part of the way our society is organized and structured. Our behaviour, opinions and the way in which we discriminate, stigmatise and socially exclude disabled people, mirrors where humanity is going wrong today.

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