Last Wednesday, a group of disabled people occupied the lobby of Parliament. This unprecedented action was taken in response to the immanent closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF). The responsibility of financially supporting those with disabilities will pass to local councils, who are already struggling with national austerity policies. The real fear for those reliant on ILF is that there funding will be reduced, if not cut altogether. The protestors’ stand was a critical one, and want to explain why.
Notwithstanding the heavy-handed police presence that forcibly removed many of the disabled people from the Westminster lobby with unreasonable force that highlights the contempt at which vulnerable people are treated by authority, the policy of removing the ILF is one of the most regressive and undemocratic moves that the current government have engaged in. This is for the simple fact that disability itself is something that enables society to envision different ways of living, alternative modes of being and other means of moving forward. Let me explain why.
Far from being a drain on societal resources and situated at the ‘bottom’ of a the social hierarchies that we are so keen to construct, disabled people show us that there are vastly different ways in which the body can ‘be’ and still live fulfilling and meaningful lives. Having a body and/or mind that functions differently from the majority of people allows for very different experiences of the world; from which different cultures can be created, creative activities can be devised and ways of moving the body are seen. The reason why the 2012 Paralympic Games in London were such a success was not because we won copious amounts of medals (although that undoubtedly helped), it was because they showed us entirely new ways of moving, being, different emotional states and simply having fun outside of a normalised sporting framework. Among those watching (abled and disabled), new emotions were felt, new (sub)cultures were envisioned and new thought processes put into action. In a society in which the image of the ideal body is hawked to us constantly, seeing those that are entirely new is liberating, exciting and powerful, precisely because it has not been seen before. Different cultures, alternative ways of existing, other means of moving a body, these are all things that disability show us, and all these that if engaged with constructively, can produce brand new ways of thinking. But perhaps more importantly, these ‘new’ ways of being allow us a society to imagine practices that benefit us all. It is the ultimate act of creativity because those with ‘abled’ bodies are simply hard-wired to never be able to conceive of them. Therefore, as a society we need disabled people, because they show us the ways in which society as whole can move.
Academics and health professionals have for many years accepted that there are two ways of theorising disability – the ‘biological model’ and ‘social model’ of disability. The former suggests that the definition of ‘disability’ comes from our biology; if we have an inability to do something that other people can do, then they are disabled. Blind people cannot see, deaf people cannot hear, so they lack all the abilities that able people have. The social model of disability turns this on its head, and suggests that it is society that disables people. For example, blind people are only disabled because society has created a mode of operation that is based on visual communication. Or people who use wheelchairs are at a disadvantage because our cities and towns are designed so inaccessibly. The social model of disability then is empowering for ‘disabled’ people because it argues that if society operates differently and more equitably, then they can contribute just as effectively as anyone else.
There are plenty of examples of this happening in policy and academic realms. A good example is the particularly productive strand of debate in deaf studies. One of the main arguments is that the deaf community are not disabled at all, they simply use of different language (i.e. sign language). In the US, there are research centres that are designing entire cities for deaf people. Imagine being a hearing person in such a place? Suddenly you would be the person who was disabled. Also, there are times when using sign language and being deaf is at a considerable advantage, as Rachel Kolb, a PhD student at Oxford University has demonstrated. Also, it has been scientifically proven that deaf people ‘rewire’ their brains to enhance their sight; they can literally see things that ‘abled’ people can’t. This is powerful evidence that disability creates brand new ways of existing that abled bodies would never be able to do.
All this means that disabled people are at the fringes of society, but is exactly where we want to be heading; they are the ones driving us forward. They are the ones who can physically imagine new things (cultures, emotions and abilities) that help societies to progress into more equitable and just places. A society that takes away their ability to be financially viable is one that cuts off its progressive edge. Disabled people should heralded as the leaders of society, and that is what the protesters where fighting for. Is it also why we should be supporting them all the way. So sign the petition and Cameron, please #SaveILF.