Thoughts on Disability

What is Disability?

When I consider words such as ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’, I can only assume that at one time, these things or people were once whole, such as the character in Wilfred Owen’s poem called Disabled, a legless soldier who had become a spectator on life. Isn’t that the real problem? If something or someone has become disabled, then we accept that what used to be is no longer the same – there is something missing or lacking.

A child who suffers a traumatic head injury becomes disabled because the brain ‘broke’; the children who played with bonfires and one fell into the flames experience the loss of the playmate who suffered horrific burns and now has to wear surgical garments and be covered in special cream. These are disabilities.

A child who happens to be born with a condition such as Downs Syndrome, or the child born with cerebral palsy, on the other hand, is not disabled because their world has not changed. It has always been what is still is.

The changes are much more about the reactions of the adults and children who share their world. Every child is born considering themselves to be whole and perfect. We are the ones who instil the idea that maybe that is not so.

If a small boy takes longer than his friends to fasten his shoes does that really make him disabled? If, as in the case of my grandchild, the child does not yet speak in complex sentences at age three, does that make her have special educational needs and therefore single her out as different i.e. disabled?

Social and Medical Models

The social versus the medical model of disability has always generated heated debate.

A social approach towards the term disability is very much a proactive one. Efforts are made to ensure that where the problem is associated with mobility or manoeuvering through and round obstacles especially in a nursery or school room, then potential barriers to accessibility will have been removed. Where the child or young person has a difficulty with clear communication, the adults and children will have been trained to recognise some of the basic signs or aspects of this child’s communication so that they can be welcomed and embraced into the small community. Apart from a few ‘tweaks’ there should be nothing to stand in the way of this child’s progress to reach their potential.

The medical model, however, focuses exclusively on the disability. Often the child is referred to by their problem rather than their name. Medical models wish to cure. Where there is no cure, there is no real interest in continuing to treat a condition that is irreversible. It would be pointless to squander expensive resources such as medical or surgical treatment on something that will not go away. This is a matter of financial commonsense.

Where there is a combined partnership between medical and social approaches, the child will receive the best of both worlds.

The attitudes reflected here were borne out recently in a television documentary. After a series of films depicting a group of ‘disabled’ individuals making a long trek across desert terrain to the sea over a period of two weeks, the guide in the programme went to visit some members of that group to see how life was treating them.

He had expressed some concern about the manner in which the participants who had become disabled through a life trauma or illness bullied and fought with those people who had been born with a condition or physical anomaly. There was real evidence that indicated the fight that those who once considered themselves to be able in body and mind experienced to prove daily that they were still, in their own minds, fit and equal in every way. The fierceness and anger that they felt was certainly pushed onto those who were born different as accusations and threats. It made for painful viewing.

Those individuals who were re-visited each expressed their acknowledgement that there is a real dilemma for those who suddenly become different in proving that they are not less than they used to be, whereas if one is born understanding certain limitations about their bodies or minds, the fight is of a different kind. There is an acceptance that what is not there cannot be made even in the most miraculous circumstances, but that is OK. And being different is a positive when viewed with equanimity.

An Inclusive Environment

A successful setting for all children is one which offers an inclusive and diverse approach so that every child and family member who makes use of the services of such a place can feel welcomed and accepted. It should not matter about their background or history. The main focus is the child and the support of those who are most likely to be caring for and raising this child. At all times, the priority is to safeguard and protect every child, including those in the community as well as those within the setting. A strong community protects and nurtures its own children. That’s where we need to be.

I remember watching the autobiographical film My Left Foot, where the main character was severely hampered by a genetic condition. He was in a makeshift wheelchair and was often treated to taunts and derision by the other children in the locality. It worked to his and his siblings’ advantage, especially during football matches and fist fights where no one expected such a distorted body to have such strength and agility.

Christy Brown, the author of the book made his name and is an exceptional writer and successful author. He suffered from brain paralysis of athetoid kind and was considered mentally disabled until he snatched a piece of chalk from a sister with his left foot. His mother taught him to read and write, and he didn’t allow his disability to stand in the way of his other skills and genius. We should all be alert to others like Christy and Stephen Hawkins and not reject their potential.

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