Disability: still taboo in family placement?

Author:Cousins, Jennifer

The cultural context of disability

Most professions have their glamorous side: the surgeon, the human rights lawyer, the sports teacher and, in social work, the child protector. Unfortunately, recent cases remind us that child protection still grabs the headlines and also tends to grab the funding. As Olive Stevenson stated many years ago:

Child abuse sometimes seems like the cuckoo in the nest, remorselessly pushing other chicks out, voraciously consuming their share of resources. (1992, p 19)

Anything to do with disability, however, comes a long way down the resources and status hierarchy. Disability ranks alongside medicine's geriatrics and anaesthetics, and for the same reasons: like the old and the unconscious, disabled people are readily marginalised. Anyone working with 'them' or arguing for resources is also sidelined. There is little which is prestigious about the world of disability. At the very best (or worst?) disability evokes pity and charity.

Even in the UK's relatively liberal society, the marginalisation of minorities is still a live issue. If asked how many prominent people in influential public positions are disabled, most respondents would agree that the number is small. And if the criteria were to be people who are disabled, Black and female, the number would shrink even further.

It took the last Paralympics to prompt the question posed in The Guardian newspaper in September 2008, 'Why are there so few disabled people on TV?':

This invisibility is significant, because of the way it affects the disabled population at large. Representation is a form of respect, and also of acceptance; the more visible people are, the less prejudice they are likely to attract. (Cochrane, 2008)

Cochrane writes that a veteran BBC reporter, who is blind, uncovered a particularly interesting story on the late shift at Westminster but this was handed to another reporter to present on the Ten O'clock News. The editor in charge wanted what he called 'a proper political correspondent' on screen. The blind reporter won a five-figure payout as a result. It is evident that, despite the 1995 Disability Discrimination legislation and Equal Opportunities policies, influential institutions are still wedded to attitudes that make genuine equality impossible.

It is dispiriting to find that even where social exclusion is specifically addressed, disability fails to be highlighted. In a well-informed publication undertaken for the office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004, entitled Including the Socially Excluded: The impact of government policy on vulnerable families and children (Buchanan, 2007), the words 'disabled', 'disability' and 'disabilities' appear once each. There is no reference to 'impairment' or 'special needs'.

Before going any further, attention should be drawn to a particular contradiction which challenges everyone involved with 'minorities', namely how to retain an inclusive perspective on disability while identifying difference in a helpful way. Disabled people are not a homogenous group and 'they' are not a separate species to be hived off into separate teams of social workers (or, for that matter, to be described in a special lecture or article devoted to disability). The issues should be part of mainstream discourse. However, disabled people (whatever their individual impairment and personal differences) do share a distinct structural relationship with a discriminatory society and may have some extra requirements in common that should be valued and recognised. As this is less likely within the mainstream, there is, it can be argued, a justifiable reason why disability should be explored as a discrete issue.

It is not the intention of this article to make everyone feel uncomfortable and guilty. Discriminatory views towards disabled people are so culturally embedded that they are unavoidable. Professionals should not feel guilty about discovering that they harbour discriminatory views, but they should do everything within their power to try to change their perspective and actions.

The English language not only enshrines discriminatory attitudes but also reinforces them so that negative views are shaped unwittingly. The word 'invalid' comes from 'in-valid', handicapped is linked to the pitiful disabled person begging with 'cap in hand' and there are numerous examples where the disability aspect of common phrases is taken for granted: a lame excuse, blindingly obvious, a dumb idea, a mad scheme, a 'no-brainer', falling on deaf ears. But we should not all suddenly be silenced for fear of getting it wrong; we will probably never get it right. Sensitivities move on and what is regarded as acceptable changes over time. The Curtis Report of 1946 (which led directly to the Children Act 1948), describes a 'mongol idiot of gross appearance' and a 'three-year-old hydrocephalic idiot of very unsightly type' (Curtis Report, 1946, paragraph 40). Even the Children Act 1989 uses the term 'dumb' to refer to children without speech (Part III, section 17). When the BBC website Ouch! (BBC, 2003) ran a survey to find out which words disabled people found the most offensive, the top ten results were:

  1. spastic (the most offensive)

  2. retard

  3. brave

  4. special

  5. cripple

  6. handicapped

  7. wheelchair-bound

  8. mong

  9. psycho

  10. window-licker.

    It is significant that 'special' was voted the fourth most offensive word. This highlights the wish of disabled people to be seen as simply part of the mainstream. Another legitimate objection is to the use of de-personalised language such as 'the disabled', 'a Down's', 'an epileptic', 'an asthmatic'.

    Discriminatory attitudes are taken for granted and go largely unnoticed. Middleton (1992) has compiled a roll-call of popular literature which tells of bad, twisted people and good, beautiful people. Her 'heroes' are Galahad (the perfect, very able-bodied knight), Superman, an alpha-male until he puts on his glasses (when he immediately becomes an ordinary wimp), Star Wars' Luke Skywalker who is brave and handsome, and one might add James Bond, the alpha male of them all, and so on.

    Middleton's villains are Long John Silver and Captain Hook (who both had missing limbs), the Cyclops with one central eye, the Ugly Sisters, Fagin, Dr Jekyll (as opposed to Mr Hyde), witches and hobgoblins--all with physical deformities to match their evil ways. Richard III comes off particularly badly: the more it suited the political purposes of those around him, the more apparently deformed he became, to the point where his portraits were retouched to make him 'hunchback'.

    Even great art perpetuates the mythology of disabled people as a dark force or pitiable creatures deserving charity. John Everett Millais's 1856 painting The Blind Girl (www.bmagic. org.uk/objects/1892P3) shows the young person wandering with her little sister, earning a living by playing the concertina and by begging. The note pinned to her shawl, 'Pity the Blind', is an appeal to passers-by to donate money. A group of disabled artists have written a commentary for the Birmingham City Art Gallery which points out that:

    * This is an idealised image of visual impairment, intended to inspire pity. The blind girl appears angelic and long suffering.

    * She is clearly poor--one of the 'deserving' poor--whom it was people's Christian duty to help.

    * She is dependent upon her young helper, as with younger siblings of disabled children today.

    * The double rainbows in the distance symbolise all that she cannot see but she experiences the countryside through her other senses (she is patiently fingering the grass). That blind people have heightened senses is another stereotype.

    * The image also shows the stereotypical belief that all blind people are musical.

    The disabled artists conclude: 'We feel that people often still do pity us, even if they pretend not to.'

    The reason that Alison Lapper was such a sensation on the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square was because the strong, dignified image of a profoundly disabled woman (naked and pregnant) was a rare occurrence. Lapper herself said of Marc Quinn's sculpture:

    I regard it as a modern tribute to femininity, disability and motherhood ... The sculpture makes the ultimate statement about disability--that it can be as beautiful and valid a form of being as any other. (Lewis, 2005)

    Attitudes towards disability are deeply embedded social phenomena that vary across place and time, and mainstream Western views may be regarded as unusual in other societies. Oliver analyses a range of perspectives regarding disabled people:

    ... in some societies, someone with polio may be seen as the victim of witchcraft, and someone with epilepsy as possessed by God or the devil ... Disability is not always defined as a personal tragedy with negative consequences; it may be seen as a sign of being chosen, as being possessed by a god, and ... the person may have their status enhanced. (1990, pp 22-23)

    Other societies, at other times, rely not on beliefs or magic to explain the world but on science and rationalism. In these cultures it is more likely that medical explanations will be prominent, with the emphasis on seeking cures to ameliorate the impact of an essentially negative condition. For example, the Peto Institute for Conductive Education in Budapest teaches children with motor disorders to improve their capacity to walk. This is a lengthy, intensive and challenging process. Proponents feel the gains massively outweigh the discomfort and other sacrifices, but opponents ask 'At what cost?', fearing that the emphasis on 'putting things right' reinforces the view that intrinsically the children are second best--a disappointment and a burden to their parents.

    The social model of disability counters this medical perspective:

    ... some of the greatest restrictions and limitations experienced by disabled children and adults are undoubtedly created by the way that society is organised to exclude them, by other...

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