How our society, environment, and systemic structures are more disabling than a diagnosis

22 February 2018

Laura Piscopo

Laura is a young carer, Inclusive Education Assistant, and Board Member of Advocacy For Inclusion. She will also feature as a Panelist at the 2018 She Leads College Conference.

At YWCA Canberra, we value diversity. That is why we launched Write for Us, an opportunity that provides our members and friends with a platform to discuss their experiences. Today, we are sharing an article written by Laura Piscopo, discussing how we can reshape ourselves and society to fully include people with disabilities.

Despite our growing focus and awareness of Human Rights issues, many of us are subconsciously contributing to a society that excludes a quarter of its population – people with disabilities.

If we do not change our attitudes and behaviour, we will almost certainly negatively affect ourselves, our children, and our family and friends.

Let’s talk ABS statistics:

  • right now, 1 in 5 Australians have a disability, and this increases to 1 in 4 when mental health issues are included
  • further, nearly 1 in 2 Australians will experience a mental health issue at some point in their life
  • 1 in 3 households include a person with a disability
  • 45 per cent of people with disability are living near or below the poverty line
  • shockingly, Australia isn’t even in the top 20 of countries for labour force participation of people with a disability
  • over half of Australians 65 years and over are affected by a disability
  • it is estimated that by 2099 the number of Australians with a profound level of disability will more than triple to 4 million
  • currently, less than 47 per cent of people with a profound level of disability agreed that their needs were fully met. (Consider how many people were even given the opportunity to answer this for themselves).

Despite the overwhelming and seemingly negative nature of these statistics, disability itself isn’t a negative thing, and is definitely not an ‘issue’ in society. The real issue is the treatment, views and systemic and social exclusion of people with disabilities in our society, which lock people with disabilities out of meaningful participation and full contribution to society.

As the population of people with disabilities rises, it is time to reassess the model through which we view disability, and learn to embrace the diversity of the human condition.

The ‘Medical Model’

There are many ways of viewing disability – these are known as ‘models’ of disability. The two most commonly referred to are the ‘medical model’ and the ‘social model’.

The ‘medical model’ of disability is how our society has traditionally viewed disability and has heavily influenced our social, environmental and systemic structures. The medical model teaches that people with disability suffer from their medical condition and are encouraged seek medical management to lessen the effects of their disability on their life; rather than society making improvements to better include people with disability.

For example, under the medical model it would be expected that someone with a facial deformity seek plastic surgeries rather than society accepting and accommodating someone considered to look different. Another example would be that a student with diverse learning needs should find a disability specific school to attend, rather than the responsibility being placed upon our schools to accommodate all learning needs.

This way of viewing disability sets low expectations of people with disability, encourages segregation and reinforces the view that disability equals suffering.

The ‘Social Model’

The ‘social model’ however, is a view that is now commonly taught and spoken of, and teaches that people with disabilities aren’t disabled by their ‘impairment’, but by the choices we as a society make that exclude them socially, environmentally and systemically.

Historically, under the medical model, it has been assumed that people with disabilities are unable to or have no interest in things like voting or tertiary education. The assumption that people with disabilities are not autonomous, combined with previous institutionalisation, has led to the inaccessibility of our systemic structures.

The social model seeks to break down the barriers created by the influence of previous models, and normalise the full participation and inclusion of people with disability.

What must change?

The social model encourages changes that need to be made systemically, socially and environmentally for the inclusion of people with disabilities, rather than changes that people with disabilities need to make to themselves to better experience society.

The types of changes the social model suggests are changes to:

  • the language we use around disability through the adoption of person first terminology, supporting people with disability to be viewed more positively in society
  • our systemic structures to make things like complaints procedures, the judicial system and voting accessible experiences
  • our environment to facilitate the full inclusion of people with disabilities. This means people with diverse access requirements should not need to enter your facility through a service elevator behind the building, the same entrance should be used for all patrons to reduce segregation
  • our work places, hiring people with disabilities not to meet a quota but because diverse teams solve problems faster
  • our education system. All levels of education should be accessible, inclusive and encouraged.

Despite this shift in thought and attitude, there are still significant systemic, environmental and societal barriers to the full inclusion of people with disabilities.

It is the role of advocates to campaign for systemic changes, and it is the role of the whole community to initiate and support societal/environmental change by aiming to represent and advocate for the social model in all aspects of our community and environment. These changes will support and heavily increase the economic, political and social participation of people with disabilities.

Being an initiator or facilitator of social change is a role that anyone can assume, and it is especially vital that young people are contributing to the empowerment and social inclusion of people with disabilities. The attitudes and behaviour of the millennial generation (that’s me too!) towards people with disabilities will heavily influence the accessibility of our environment, systemic and social structures in the future.

What can you do?

The easiest way for people to facilitate this change is through modelling inclusive behaviour.

Inclusive behaviour can be as simple as making changes to the language you use around disability, including learning and using person first terminology. Person first terminology dismisses the medical model that views people with disability as ‘not whole’, and puts their disability first and all other abilities second.

There is always a more correct way of speaking that promotes inclusion and takes no additional effort on behalf of the speaker.

Disabled is a word that is no longer used correctly in our society, and sometimes as an insult. Disabled means to be inoperative (or not working), so to call someone who is alive ‘disabled’ makes no sense!

Another example of person first terminology is not labelling someone as the ‘down syndrome girl’, but saying ‘girl with down syndrome’ or better yet; use her name when referring to her – I know that’s what I’d prefer. These small changes in the way we talk about disability have a big effect on the empowerment and inclusion of people with disability.

Inclusive behaviour can also be demonstrated through an increased care for the accessibility of our environment, whether it just be through broadening our awareness and taking notice of accessibility barriers around us, or by making changes to the environments we have control over such as our homes and workplaces.

The way forward

Making these changes to the way we view, think and talk about disability will dramatically improve the inclusion of people with disability in our society. It’s important to remove our association of suffering from disability and seek to encourage the empowerment and meaningful participation of people with disability in our community, workplaces and schools.

I challenge you to use these strategies and encourage the presence of the social model in your home, workplace, school and community.

Have the courage to question the traditional models and views of disability, and be an initiator or facilitator of change in all aspects of your life. After all, “Disability is just an idea, and exclusion is just a habit” (Jennie Fenton, TED 2014).

Break the habit today.

The Write for Us opportunity is a part of our larger advocacy strategy. Advocacy is at the heart of the work we do at YWCA Canberra, and with the vision of women shaping our communities, we want to amplify the diverse voices of women in the Canberra community. To discover more about YWCA Canberra’s advocacy, subscribe to Y Action today.

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