disability

disability
   It is widely assumed that the term ‘disability’ refers to a biological or medical condition. However, since the late 1980s those involved in the campaign for civil rights for disabled people have stressed the difference between an impairment (lacking part or all of a limb or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body) and a disability (the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social situation, which takes no or little account of people who have physical impair-ments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities). According to this definition, disability must be located within society rather than on or in the body of an individual. In the 1990s, the term has been widely employed by civil rights groups to attack discrimination against disabled people. Impairment charities have been identified as central to the perpetuation of this discrimination, since most charity appeals represent disabled people as ‘tragic but brave’ individuals. Hevey (1990) has argued that this produces an understanding of disability as a personal rather than a socio-political problem. Typical examples of this are Mencap’s use of the Dickensian Little Stephen character (encapsulating the idea that people with learning disablement are necessarily childlike and helpless) and the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s campaign of the late 1980s which portrayed MS as a rip in an otherwise perfect body. Anger concerning these images has led large groups of disabled people to picket the sites of television charity ‘spectaculars’ such as the BBC’s Children in Need and the ITV Telethon. In the mid-1990s, impairment charities such as SCOPE (formerly the Spastics Society) and Mencap have responded to this criticism by attempting to build more challenging imagery into their advertising.
   In May 1994, the government blocked the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill which would have given disabled people full legal protection against discrimination in most areas of life. As a response to the demonstrations this provoked (including a mass rally in Trafalgar Square in July 1994) and the widespread support they received from the nondisabled public, the government drafted the Disability Discrimination Act, which became law in November 1995. This was heavily criticized for containing no commitment to civil rights, as the body it created—The National Disability Council —has no power to help a disabled person fight a case of discrimination. In this sense, the law concerning disabled people is considerably weaker than the laws which forbid discrimination on the grounds of race or gender.
   Further reading
    Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, London: Macmillan (a solid and accessible introduction).
    Hevey, D. (1992) The Creatures that Time Forgot, London: Routledge (a lively and polemical discussion of visual images of disability).
   AL DEAKIN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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