What is disability ?

This seems like a bloody stupid question to ask on a website about disability rights. But there is more than one definition of disability - the main two being the medical model and the social model.

Red Disability's definition is a variant of the social model ; we see disability as when a person's physical or mental functions deviate from the average to such a degree that this deviation needs to be taken account of (similar to "special needs"). The adaptations to encompass this deviation may be anything from specially designed mobility or sensory aids, to a simple increase in awareness and understanding to eliminate intolerance.

A handicap, often wrongly used to mean the same as disability, is caused when the disability is not taken account of - leading to restrictions on what a disabled peoson can or cannot do. Obviously, handicaps are directly caused by society not being designed to accommodate disabled people. But, to a large extent, what is classed as disability is also dependent on the structure of society.

The concept of disability dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when many people who could not adapt to the new industrial processes were forced to survive in workhouses. The intolerable conditions endured by sick, elderly and injured people (kids included) in these workhouses led to demands for social reform, to provide a better standard of living for those made unable to work. At the same time, however, the capitalist Establishment of the time wanted to keep exploiting those who could work, as ruthlessly as ever. They managed to do this by two means.

Firstly, they had to limit who was eligible for assistance, by defining who was unable to work. With the connivance of doctors of the time, they did this by creating a medical definition of disability - now known as the medical model. The role of the medical model has changed over the years, but its function remains essentially the same - to define disability as an individual phenomenon, labelling people as physically or mentally defective.

At the same time, it was agreed that people who could not work should not have the same living standards as those in work, or it would encourage people to avoid being exploited. As a result, to this day, disabled people and their families generally suffer a lower standard of living than non-disabled people, and a stigma to boot.

The first challenge to the medical model of disability came in the late 1970s, when Vic Finkelstein - a disabled communist from apartheid South Africa, living in the UK - created the Social Model of disability. This states that disability is caused by society's inability to accommodate people who are physically or mentally different from the average, and that it is the built and social environment that disables people.

Red Disability believes that the inability of society to accommodate people with impairments can take many forms. At one point, Red Disability was rebuked for listing people who wear glasses in our Famous People with Disabilities section, because wearing glasses does not stop you doing anything. That is largely true, but there are still a minority of employers (notably the military) who discriminate against people who need to wear glasses or contact lenses. More generally, the stigma against people who wear glasses still exists to the extent that people are willing to risk laser eye surgery to cure their long or short sightedness, to avoid the stigma. So we make no apologies for classing people who wear glasses as having a disability.

In fact, there are many disabilities which should not stop people leading normal lives, because they still can do things even though sometimes social constraints don't allow them. In other cases, people with disabilities would be able to do things if society and the built environment were structured differently, to take into account the whole society instead of - as at present - the small minority of capitalists who organise and run society.

So the best way to cure or overcome disability is not by individual cures or individual adaptations of lifestyle, but by replacing capitalist society with an inclusive society which is built from the bottom up, not the top down. And in which all people, of whatever ability and disability, have a say in what form the society and its infrastructure should take. We need a socialist society.

To bring such a society about, we need to overthrow the capitalist Establishment. To do this requires a revolutionary socialist organisation.

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