Resetting mindsets about disability

TODAY Comment & Analysis, 25 July 2013

by Alvan Yap

Nine days after Singapore celebrates its 48th birthday, the local disability community will mark its own momentous milestone.

On Aug 18, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) comes into effect in Singapore. This follows the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s announcement last Friday that the Government has ratified the convention (which it signed last November).

For people with disabilities in Singapore — numbering about 100,000 —this is welcome news and a giant step towards equal rights and access in all aspects of life.

However, real progress towards a truly inclusive society depends not only on what the Government does in adhering to the letter of the CRPD, but also on whether society adopts the spirit of the convention. In other words, how society as a whole perceives people with disabilities is crucial.

A large proportion of the general public, corporations and policy-makers tend to think of people with disabilities using two common, entrenched models. Let’s look at them and then examine a third, seldom-considered model — which might make all the difference.

AS ‘CHARITY’ OR ‘MEDICAL’ CASES
The Charity Model is encapsulated by the oft-used words “less fortunate”, “underprivileged” and “needy” to describe people with disabilities, especially in conjunction with fund-raising efforts. No doubt, such charity initiatives stem from good intentions and hearts.

The problem arises when it becomes the primary lens through which the entire disability community is viewed — as pitiful, helpless and financially dependent. Naturally, being stereotyped as welfare recipients or associated with tales of tragedy is humiliating. This is also not a positive or accurate portrayal of the vast majority of people with disabilities.

The Medical Model is another widespread societal perspective of the disability community. This pertains to the medical issues and biological “defects” linked to the particular disability and the corresponding cures — via medical procedures, therapies or drugs. Such a narrow focus on making the person with disability as “normal” as possible can become misguided at times.

True, medical intervention is crucially important in reducing pain, in mitigating the severity of disability-related conditions, in prolonging life, and so on.

But these have limitations too. For many disabilities — whether physical, sensory, intellectual or neurological in nature — there is no fix to be found in medicine or technology; they are incurable, lifelong conditions.

It is more pertinent, then, to accept and adapt to the disability. The questions that should be asked take on a different slant: How can persons with disabilities be included in the family, in schools, in society? What kind of attitudes and measures are needed — both on the part of the individuals with disabilities and society at large — to improve their lives and accord them dignity?

‘DISABILITY’ LIES IN THE ENVIRONMENT

This brings us to the Social Model of disability, which finds explicit expression in the CRPD. It says that disability does not lie in the person himself, but in his social and physical environment. It focuses on enabling the person with disability. How? By removing the physical barriers around him and changing people’s negative attitudes towards him.

Take the example of a student in a mainstream school who has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair. When his class goes on an outing to a park, he is able to join in because a wheelchair-accessible bus is available, and there are ramps, wheelchair lifts and wide paved paths at the park. His classmates and teachers also cheerfully help to push his wheelchair up the steeper slopes. Here, can we say the wheelchair-using student is “disabled”? After all, he is able to go where his classmates go, and take part in the activities they participate in, and everyone welcomes him.

One can just as easily imagine the opposite scenario, though — a lack of wheelchair-friendly transportation, inaccessible park facilities, and classmates and teachers who regard him as a hassle, all of which result in him having to miss the outing. Now he definitely is disabled — being limited in what he can do, where he can go.

More instances of how a Social Model of disability leads to more positive outcomes: A person with autism performs well with a customised, structured regime at the workplace. A student with profound hearing loss who uses sign language thrives in school with the aid of note-takers or sign language interpreters.

Wheelchair users and people with visual impairment are able to access public places with the provision of accessible transportation and facilities which adhere to Universal Design principles. Workers with intellectual disabilities are competent and productive at work because the job scope is tailored to their capabilities.

By enabling these supposedly disabled folks to function to their full potential, they can study, work, be independent, lead dignified and meaningful lives — just the same as their non-disabled peers.

COMMON-SENSE, NOT SPECIAL, RIGHTS
Reading through the 50 articles of the CRPD, one realises that it is not demanding special, extra or extraordinary rights for people with disabilities.

It is actually asking governments to commit to a commonsensical stance — that people with disabilities are entitled to the legal rights, privileges and protection already enjoyed by the non-disabled. What can be fairer or more logical if we truly wish to forge an inclusive, just and moral society?

So let’s cast off the rusty clanking chains of seeing disability as inferiority, tragedy or victimhood. Let’s look at it afresh, with open minds and without constraints.

Let’s adopt the Social Model of disability and be enlightened about what disability really is — a normal part of the human condition as well as a testimony to the wondrous diversity of humanity itself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alvan Yap, who is hearing impaired himself, has worked as a special education teacher and as an editor with a publishing company. He is currently an advocacy executive with the Disabled People’s Association (Singapore).

 

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