Turning Disability Rights Against The Disabled.

You’d think the topic of disability rights would be familiar to me, since rights were a recurring theme throughout my legal and philosophical training. Yet during those nine years at university, the topic rarely arose. We looked at the rights of women, children, the poor, the terminally ill and of various races. As students and teachers we could all understand these groupings and all knew someone who belonged to such groups. But “the disabled” was an amorphous grouping – an “other” – within the able-bodied and able-minded university classroom. The occasional blind student or wheelchair assisted person made the student body feel all-inclusive and progressive; students would ask to pat the guide dog or smile as they pulled their bags out-of-the-way for the wheelchair. But mental disabilities walked among us unacknowledged, unspoken, or unknown.

The academic culture was such that at a recent group tutor training session one my fellow tutors was giving an example of a stupid question a student had asked her, and decided to voice it by sticking her tongue into her lower lip and putting on a typical ridiculing voice used to make fun of the mentally disabled. The other tutors laughed around me, I was disgusted and angry and outraged, and apparently alone in that outrage. Another example: a student in one of my own classes used the existence of the disabled as an example of why rights theory can’t be based on human capacity for rationality because the disabled lack the capacity to reason. Others in the class seemed to find this insightful.

The problem with disability rights for many people, is getting their heads around the diversity of disability, which is just as richly varied as the diversity of “ability,” and with so much overlap between the two. It’s even trickier when you have conditions like autism where the label tells you little about whether the person is severely intellectually disabled or more mildly disabled across other areas that don’t impact on intelligence per se. Co-morbid conditions further complicate any simple grouping. So much of the disabled rights movement is simply asking people to see the disabled as individuals, with the same rights as everyone else on this planet; looking past the label to the human being. Understanding that lack of speech or looking different (or whatever) does not mean the person is less worthy of basic protection and equal treatment.

Equal treatment; there’s the rub. Because equal access, equal education, equal employment rights, look different in a world that is created with the majority in mind. Suddenly “equal” requires extra services, extra supports, special consideration, even more so in a world that is not only made for the majority, but which actively views the disabled as lesser human beings (eg, situations where “positive discrimination” may be suggested). For joe-public, this is a contradiction: To insist you are equal and should have equal rights, but to demand special treatment in order to exercise that equality. “Make up your mind; are you equal human beings who can speak for themselves, or are you dependent on others who are more capable and productive than you.” (I’ve seen so many discussions along these lines in local public forums, a classic and common example is when a disabled individual requires special exam conditions like time extensions or people who can write for them, and they’re attacked for expecting “special treatment.”)

I see this uncomfortable tension playing out in recent Government policy: where the Government is expecting the disabled to stop sponging off the taxpayer and get a job; are expecting the disabled to enter complex employment contracts with their carers; and don’t accept disability as an “excuse” anymore,  in a way that is creating a lot of upset and even terror across the disabled population. (One of the more outrageous examples, a quote from a Government worker in the case of a tetraplegic woman being evicted from her rental: “‘I note that you have a serious disability. However, many people with disabilities are able to manage very well within their own means.”) This all under the guise of the Government being more accepting of the capabilities and independence of the disabled, yet apparently forgetting that they are dumping them in a world which still treats them like lesser human beings, and forgetting that disability is not one big grouping with a straight-forward cut-off point of who is in and who is out and who can do what.

The Government is proud that it has moved away from the institutionalization and segregation of the disabled, yet inadequately funds the alternatives of mainstreaming and home-based care. The money that was holding up the old system, does not appear to have been redirected into the new improved systems, it feels like the inclusion of the disabled in society is being used as a reason to say “see, they don’t need our money anymore, how wonderfully progressive of us!”, when the level of need and support for those individuals has not itself actually decreased.

I’m not just attacking the current Government (even though they have a very poor track record over the past few years for the rights and treatment of the disabled), I think the problem lies in the complexity of what is meant by disability rights, and even what is meant by disability. I’m not even arguing for a specific version of disability rights in this post, so much as trying to highlight where a particular key confusion seems to be arising and is being used to turn disability rights against the disabled.

I think any meaningful discussion of what disability rights means in practice, has to take place within existing societal constructs: We’re not just talking about the rights of the disabled in a pure context-less sense, we’re talking about the rights of the disabled within a framework of public health and education and the specific country’s legal system. In this context, it is going to be inadequate and discriminatory to provide a publicly funded system that sets the disabled out to fight for themselves but expressly creates and upholds a situation where the majority are extensively catered to already (whereby their own fight is already won). Whether the current system is one based on a good workable understanding of human rights would always be a relevant question, but where it nevertheless exists it remains relevant to ask if it is treating the disabled as equal citizens.

The disabled are not trying to have their cake and eat it too – they are not saying “treat us like everyone else but differently.” There are those who will twist disability rights into a vehicle to further belittle, demonize, dehumanize, incapacitate, and make fun of the disabled. They are doing more than harming the disabled though, they are perpetuating an impoverished world where significant chunks of the population are denied the right to contribute and to flourish. There was a time that I was ignorant of how disability might fit in with rights rhetoric, I’m not that ignorant anymore, now I’m angry instead.

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13 Responses to Turning Disability Rights Against The Disabled.

  1. Your posts always amaze me. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot. So many times people assume that equal means the same. That gets in the way of so many rights movements because it’s just not the truth. But I’m angry, too, that we keep getting brushed aside. I went to congress once begging anyone to sign onto legislation that would keep disabled students safe at school. They wouldn’t because of the unions. These are the same people I voted for, the same people that are joining the fight for equality in other needed areas, and they wouldn’t sign onto GUIDElLINES that would bring the safety measures at schools to what they are in prisons and hospitals.

    Yes. Anger.

  2. Good stuff here. And much to think about. I’ve been accused of it myself from some friends who don’t quite understand. Why do I demand extra services? Shouldn’t they be treated like everyone else? And yet in order to access things “equally” we need more and more…it’s quite the conundrum.

    • If I recall correctly, it was called the difference between substantive and formal equality back in my uni days; the difference between the process being equal and the outcome being equal. But I don’t think even that distinction quite captures the complexity, because even making the process equal for the disabled requires extra work. I may have to write another post exploring that point. Thanks for commenting Domestic Goddess.

  3. Quintorpian says:

    Great post and part of a much needed public conversation. I guess it’s just really hard for alot of people to see complexity so while they can understand a simpler area of equality, eg re sexual orientation, where the ‘disadvantaged’ side is asking for the same thing, it must just fry their brains when the issue involves so many parts to it, like special provisions. I’m not so sure that alot of folk will ever be able to work with complex issues like disability rights unless things can be somehow reduced to simple binaries for them. In the face of conplexity, people can get pretty narrow and fundamentalistic i think.

    • Fair comment Quintorpian, people do like to think in binaries and disability issues are never that simple. Trying to force them into distorting models just causes further confusion and frustration, we need to fit the way we understand things to reality, not force reality into the way we already think about things. It can be quite challenging.

  4. ambhannah says:

    Hi there I wonder if you would be interested in speaking at Massey university education faculty to teachers undertaking further study in specialist education ? Antonia

  5. Hilary Stace says:

    Thanks for this post. We have a Disabilty Rights Commissioner in the Human Rights Commission, Paul Gibson, who is often available to speak to groups on any issues related to disability rights. There are also some good resources available on the Human Rights Commission website (www.hrc.co.nz). Paul has a long background in disability rights and was involved with the NZ Disability Strategy in 2001 and more recently one of many disabled NZers involved with the development of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which NZ ratified in 2008 (and continues to monitor via the Convention Coalition of disabled people’s organisations and NGOs). The Convention addresses many of these equity issues. There is also a lot of work going on behind the scenes in NZ, for example addressing historic abuse of disabled people by institutionalisation, lack of access to education, family life etc (which is just one reason why equal rights means more than equal treatment as there is a long way to go before the playing field is even level).

  6. Hilary Stace says:

    I forgot to mention that discrimination on the grounds of disability now has a name – ableism. It is similar to racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia etc. Australian disabled academic Fiona Kumari Campbell has written a useful book on the issue – Contours of Ableism.

  7. Sheogorath says:

    Another example: a student in one of my own classes used the existence of the disabled as an example of why rights theory can’t be based on human capacity for rationality because the disabled lack the capacity to reason.
    I would have phrased that as, “Rights theory can’t be based on capacity for rationality because some intellectually disabled people are unable to reason on an equal level to their peers.” Thus phrased, what I said is, I feel, a lot less insulting and demeaning to disabled people than how the student put it.

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