The 22 November this year will mark the beginning of the UK Disability History Month. Although already five years in the running, Disability History Month is yet to make it onto regular school curricula, or even the latest university reading lists which the initiative affects. And its effects are far reaching indeed – whether you think of Homer’s representation of the blind, or modern-day fertility legislation in South Africa, subtle assumptions about what ability and dis-ability are remain deeply ingrained in popular discourse.
Such assumptions, however, have a deeply un-problematised history. It is common knowledge amongst university students that sex and gender describe different types of things – the former referring to a biological makeup (one that is, admittedly, far from binary in itself) and the latter to the social categories which we have, as a society, developed in dealing with “gendered” actors, objects, ideas or the like. There is no biological or physical thing that defines gender.
For many, this distinction is now obvious, thanks not least to academics such as Judith Butler. However, the same is not true of disability and disability studies. Far less well-known is Sunaura Taylor, an American artist and disability rights activist, who suggested in the 2008 documentary Examined Life that while impairment involves the biological state of the body, disability is made up of the socially constructed barriers which exclude people from participation in the “normal”, or what we have defined as “able-bodied”, life. This impairment-disability dyad, which is sometimes advanced by analogy with the distinction between sex and gender, is much less present in undergraduate parlance.
It’s not all gloom and doom, however. The “normality” with which we associate particular manifestations of health (mental and physical) is shifting as efforts to include disability in academic syllabi and gain representation in the media are starting to take off. UK Disability History month has encouraged us to examine the history of disability and those we call disabled through the “social model” of disability. In Oxford, the “Let’s Get Disability on the List!” Campaign was established in 2013 by a group of graduate law students at Wadham College and explores the intersection of disability with academia.
2015 is also the twentieth anniversary of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and marks five years since the 2010 Equalities Act. The hard won civil rights campaign which secured the 1995 act was fought by distinguished disability activists including the now Baroness Jane Campbell. These campaigners have been celebrated in a recent video by the organization Scope and their achievements were marked here in Oxford by a mock court case competition – the Herbert Smith Freehills Oxford Disability Mooting Championship – debating legal issues affecting people with disabilities in the employment context.
The moot was followed by a panel discussion on the representation of people with disabilities in the UK media. With speakers such as Dom Hyams, Editor of Power 100, and Liz Sayce OBE, the Chief Executive Officer of the leading charity Disability Rights UK, the discussion ended on a positive but difficult note: rather than just trying to “rehabilitate” or “re-integrate” the disables, we ought to focus on reconfiguring society.
What remains key, as ever in liberation campaigning and social organisation, is that the movement toward a better and fairer representation of people with disabilities is one which engages those who would not class themselves as having a disability. The hegemony of “health-normality” can only be questioned successfully if questioned en masse, and in those spheres in which it is propagated most frequently. This is precisely why both the UK Disability History Month and the panel discussion last week sought not just to challenge attitudes, but also the idea of “default-ness” in society.
Media, formal and social, is a key propagator of the legitimation and reaffirmation of “the normal”. Speaking about it is the first, but essential, step in challenging “the normal” and effecting change.