The non-disabled Establishment prefers to adopt what is called the ‘medical model’ of disability, which defines it as an individual problem rather than as a social restriction. This medical model is disempowering because it ignores disabled people’s own view of their situation and their ability to manage their own lives. It is also institutionalised, and therefore does not change as fast as individual awareness. Disabled people may have medical conditions that hamper them, and may or may not need medical treatment. However, access to modern technology and adequate resources can ensure that physical and mental impairments do not prevent disabled people from leading perfectly satisfactory lives.
By contrast, the ‘social model’ makes disability the collective responsibility of society as a whole. Society’s prejudices about disabled people act as barriers to their greater involvement. These barriers include the physical inaccessibility of buildings and transport, the lack of structures through which disabled people can represent themselves, and the inaccessibility of information. The social model is more fruitful than the medical model as it makes prevention of discrimination a priority, and links the struggles of disabled people with those of other oppressed groups seeking to remedy political and social injustice. It gives disabled people a positive role to play in challenging society’s attitudes.
The issue for disabled people is to reject other people’s views of how they should behave and what their needs are. They do not necessarily want to be the same as anyone else, but they want to be equal to anyone else: they want to gain an identity as a disabled person. Disability awareness helps non-disabled people to help disabled people to do what they want to do.
One way in which disabled people can demonstrate their independence is by taking up voluntary work. The problem is, however, that voluntary organisations are not always ready to receive them. Their premises are not always physically accessible. Their advertising does not always make it clear that disabled people are as welcome as anyone else. Despite their much-vaunted equal opportunities policies, they are not always prepared to foot the bill for the extra support disabled volunteers sometimes need (there are not always extra costs involved). And the kind of training they provide for their volunteers rarely takes account of disabled people in its design, content and delivery.
Disabled volunteers have much to offer to voluntary organisations, and involving them as volunteers will greatly enrich an organisation:
- Time. A high proportion of disabled people are unemployed and claiming benefit, and so may well have time to spare.
- Motivation. If they can be persuaded that volunteering will reduce their isolation, disabled people will realise that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from taking it up.
- Skills and interests. Disabled people are well-equipped to give advice on tackling such problems as poverty and isolation, because so many of them have first-hand experience.