Guest Post: Society’s Disabling Restrictions
Amidst a rising tide of negativity towards disabled people in the press, Disability Rights activism is becoming more and more urgent. I got asked by Nicola Sleap if I would publish this article she wrote for SCM’s Movement magazine as a guest post. I’m glad she did, because unlike her, I’m not on the receiving end of this shift.
Britain today is a society in which disabled people are frequently marginalised. This marginalisation can occur through three different kinds of barrier: systemic barriers in the way in which society is organised, attitudinal barriers in terms of the portrayal of disabled people as a distant other from non-disabled people, and physical barriers which prevent disabled people from accessing certain areas.
Societally-created barriers such as these are often far more disabling for people with physical and mental impairments than those impairments are themselves. Disability is therefore most helpfully understood as the negative impact upon someone with an impairment of a society which fails to recognise and meet their access requirements. This is often an empowering concept for disabled people. It also means that disability becomes a socio-political rather than a medical phenomenon. Disabled people therefore stand alongside other politically oppressed groups.
As is visible in the gospels, Jesus sought to subvert the political order, through creating the early church of those in politically oppressed groups. His radical inclusivity was extended to disabled people, alongside others considered at the time to be social outcasts and ‘sinners’. Yet, whilst the society in which he lived viewed disabled people as inferior and sinful, Jesus clearly did not consider them as such.
Three of the gospels refer to an episode when Jesus holds up children as an example of those who are the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and in Luke he contextualises this by saying ‘For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest’ (Luke 9: 48). In both of the other two gospels this leads into an episode in which Jesus speaks of the causes of sin (Matthew 18: 8-9 and Mark 9: 43-46).
This episode clearly subverts the societal view that physical impairment was a sinful or even negative attribute. For Jesus says that ‘It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire’. Jesus therefore refutes the idea that impairment in itself is a hindrance to leading a worthy life. Having begun by speaking of children as one ‘lesser’ group who are in fact ‘the greatest’, Jesus goes on to overturn societal judgement of another group, disabled people.
The current economic downturn has furthered our society’s marginalisation of disabled people. In a time of relative austerity, stories in the press portraying disabled people as benefit frauds or scroungers have exacerbated resentment towards disabled people amongst the non-disabled majority. Such attitudes, alongside the reality that many disabled people do not have the capacity to make their voices heard, have made disabled people a relatively easy target group to lose out in the cuts.
Through various measures within the cuts, and through some reforms, the government is increasing the number of systemic barriers disabled people face. For example, an extremely harsh new work capability assessment for those seeking to claim Employment and Support Allowance (the replacement of Incapacity Benefit) comes into effect from Monday 28th March.
In this assessment, the capabilities of a mobility impaired person can be assessed on what they can do with the assistance of a wheelchair, even if they do not have one and cannot afford one. In the case of mental health conditions, should an applicant succeed in carrying out personal tasks such as washing, dressing, and travelling to the assessment centre alone, they are highly unlikely to qualify for the benefit.
The many disabled people who according to these and other criteria will almost undoubtedly fail to qualify for ESA, but who are also not capable of work, will be put onto Job Seeker’s Allowance. This means that disabled people may find themselves required but unable to participate in the new mandatory work related activity scheme.
Should they be unable to participate, a disabled person may well consequently have their allowance withheld for three or even six months. If they would like to legally challenge an attempt to force them into work, recent cuts in legal aid will not make that an easy path to follow.
These policies demonstrate some of the many ways in which the changing organisation of society in Britain today is further disabling people with both physical and mental impairments.
Other systemic barriers to disabled people, such as the exclusion of disabled children from mainstream education, also consolidate and perpetuate attitudinal barriers. Impairments do cause many disabled children to have different access requirements to non-disabled children at school. However, when disabled children are invisible through exclusion, those in mainstream schools gain no real understanding of the different access requirements disabled children might have.
This government and the cuts are not making integration easier. Both because of the current economic climate and the Conservatives’ pledge to support ‘special schools’, it seems highly unlikely that the educational integration of disabled children will be achieved in the near future.
The segregation of disabled children at school age is only one of many ways in which disabled people are segregated from non-disabled people. As someone who has started to use a wheelchair relatively recently, I am increasingly aware of the physical barriers in my local town that prevent many from fully participating in society. Cafes, restaurants, shops and pubs are frequently inaccessible to wheelchair users, despite a duty to provide access under the Equality Act.
The prevention of wheelchair users from entering areas and buildings means that they often have limited opportunities to interact with non-disabled people. This in turn means that their differences and differing access requirements will often continue to be misconceived by the non-disabled majority.
As long as disabled people are segregated from non-disabled people in ways such as this, myths concerning the realities of impairment and disability will perpetuate, thereby creating attitudinal barriers which marginalise disabled people. As Christians, we should heed Jesus’ assertion that impairment in itself is not necessarily negative, and stand against the marginalisation of those with physical or mental impairments. This means opposing regressive governmental measures which further this marginalisation and re-envisioning society as one where people with all kinds of impairments can participate on an equal level to those without impairments.