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How To Feel More Comfortable Discussing Disability

A great article by Martyn Sibley which we thought was definitely worth sharing: “How to feel more comfortable discussing disability” (click on the link below):

How to feel more comfortable discussing disability

Like many people, you probably feel a bit at sea when it comes to discussing disability. Whether you have a disability or not. With 1.3bn people in the world said to have an impairment or long term health condition, it’s a really big topic! This article will give you a couple of frameworks by which to engage in accessibility and inclusion discussions more confidently.

The Social Model of Disability

Prior to working for the disability charity Scope I didn’t really identify as being disabled. Sure, I have always needed a wheelchair and care support. But my mindset was somehow ignorant in identifying as disabled. It was even a compliment if someone said “you know, I really don’t see you as disabled”.

After studying at Coventry university and struggling to get a job in the ‘city’ I took the opportunity in my hometown in Cambridgeshire with Scope. Beyond the career development mentioned in my previous article, I learned all about the social model of disability. What a life changing moment it was too.

I found out that originally disabled people were seen by society through the medical model. This meant if a doctor couldn’t cure or fix you, a life of segregation ensued. Separate housing, separate schools, separate workplaces, separate leisure pursuits and so forth.

In the 1970s groups of disabled people started to fight for their political, social and human rights. In Berkeley university, California, an independent living movement started. Calling for investment in accessibility and support services for disabled students, to have the same opportunities as non disabled students.

From this turmoil and change the social model of disability was born! The best way I describe it personally is that I’m disabled by societal barriers. My medical condition or impairment is called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. I need to look out for my health and wellbeing. So medical support isn’t removed. However it acknowledges a fulfilled life can come from the removal of these social barriers, not simply from trying to cure me.

The 3 Types of Barriers

The first type of barrier is environmental. This is to say how we access places and spaces. As a wheelchair user I’m disabled by steps and stairs. But when there are ramps and lifts, I’m simply Martyn.

The second type of barrier is attitudinal. This is to say discrimination and prejudice from people’s stereotypes and language towards disabled people. I’m often disabled by people thinking I can’t talk or think for myself simply because I’m a wheelchair user. But when people are respectful and ask how best to engage me in conversation, I’m simply Martyn.

The third type of barrier is policy and procedures. This is to say how organisations structure the way the world engages with them. From governments to employers to service providers and beyond, policies are everywhere. I’ve often been disabled by the policy of needing to book train assistance 24 hours in advance of travel, or working for a company without workplace adjustments. However if I could get on a train spontaneously, or work for an inclusive employer, I’m simply Martyn.

Segmenting the Disability Community

As a marketer it would be remiss of me to not mention the segments within the disability community. At Purple Goat we break down this huge community in to mobility, visual, hearing, neurodiverse, hidden and non disabled people with close proximity to disability.

Of course there are overlaps and many people have multiple impairments. But it at least gives us a framework to look at what kind of social barriers are disabling people in different ways.

Criticisms and Exceptions

Of course like with any model there are areas open for debate. For someone with chronic pain a world without social barriers still doesn’t remove their discomfort. And what if a safe cure does come along for a particular health condition? Plus how does technology fit in to the equation?

For me it simply explained the history of oppression disabled people have faced. It gave me a language that empowered me rather than made me feel like the problem or a burden. It kick started a career that raises awareness and works to build bridges in society on removing these barriers. Whilst ultimately having compassion that we’re all different and no model should replace common sense and human decency.

In to the Future – Representation Matters

Whatever part of life we focus on there are still too many disabling barriers for too many disabled people. As disabled people have gradually won more political, social and human rights, we’re gradually getting a seat at the table. But there’s still so much to do.

For me the answer is representation. Not in the style where disabled people hate on non disabled people. But where everyone works together to remove these society barriers. Yes because it’s the right thing to do. Yes because it’s the legal thing to do. But also from an economic and business perspective it leads to more prosperity. For everyone!