Disability perspectives locally and globally: The journey travelled, and ‎the journey still to happen

By Kalpna Mistry, Staff Networks Coordinator, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre at Imperial College London 

International Day for Persons with DisabilitiesIn the UK the law protects the rights of disabled people, for instance the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which gave way to the Equality Act 2010 describes disability as a protected characteristic. It places the responsibility on service providers and employers to provide a discrimination-free service or make reasonable adjustments in the workplace. So, where 30 years ago if a wheelchair user could not access the cinema due to steps leading to the entrance or there being no wheelchair access in the screening room, the cinema had no obligation to do anything about it. It was the fault of the wheelchair user, that they had come to a service which they were expected to know would be inaccessible to them.

How times have changed though, now in this 21st century the social model of disability places the onus on the cinema or any other large service providers like banks, educational institutions hospitals etc. to be accessible and open for all. Employers must interview a candidate who has a disability and meets the minimum essential criteria for a job. The responsibility is also on the employer to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. More often than not, these adjustments whether, it be in terms of physical access to a building, or using larger sized fonts or special software, actually provide benefits to those who are non-disabled and makes life easier for everyone. Thus an improvement made for the disabled person or people, results in an improvement for the rest of society who too benefit from them.

As one can see, in parts of the Western world, a lot of consideration has been taken into making things easier and accessing, education, jobs health care and other services for the disabled. Contrast this then with the experiences of disabled people in the developing world. For the lucky handful of individuals, there may be access to education, however this is not so for the majority of disabled individuals. I am speaking from my own personal experience of having grown up as a disabled person in a developing African nation. There was only one special primary school for disabled children in Zimbabwe. So unless disabled children could adapt and keep pace with other children in non-disabled primary schools, they either did not go to school, or had to travel to Harare (if they did not live there) to attend St. Giles school. Luckily St. Giles also provided boarding facilities, but this meant separation from families, which resulted in homesickness and emotional stress. It was the same story once one went onto secondary school. So, the lack of provision of either special schools or equipment, technology and special needs teaching assistants in mainstream education means that for most of the disabled population, education is still inaccessible. Given that education is a pillar to future earnings and thus independence, it is no wonder that so many disabled people are trapped in this cycle of dependence and poverty.

Access to healthcare or rather a lack of it also supress the lives of many people in the developing world. One automatically assumes a lack of decent healthcare facilities in such nations, however, in countries like India where medical staff and supplies are in abundance, (to the extent that they are also recruited by western countries) the problem is the cost of accessing decent healthcare, as opposed to its availability. The bright lights of big cities would most likely be where one would get the most appropriate help needed, this poses cost and travel problems for disabled city dwellers themselves, so how much more compounded would those problems be for those that need to travel into the cities from the rural areas.

I guess a major hurdle that disabled people face worldwide is the attitudes of others, and a lack of societal ability to accept differences. It is these attitudinal barriers which lead to exclusion and disadvantage. They are at the root of all other barriers, be it education, employment, healthcare, relationships or even family life, no wonder so many try to play down their disability or to overcome it. I therefore urge you to step back a moment,and question whether it is the difference of the person with the so called ‘impairment’ that makes them disabled, or our own inability as a society to accept, foresee and make the changes to accommodate difference, that make them disabled.

Finally, seeming that we rely so heavily on the disabled person with the ‘impairment’ to teach us a new way to do something or even a new way to think about differences , makes me wonder is it us as a society who are disabled?

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