A Life Opportunities Survey in the UK, conducted for the first time since 1997, surveyed 18,000 Britons and the findings on disability are striking. (As are the way the headlines about the survey are framed.) Bottom line? There are significant social obstacles to full participation in society for people with disabilities, leading to increased isolation in comparison with nondisabled people.
There’s a reason we talk about the social model of disability a lot: Because it matters. Many of the obstacles encountered by people with disabilities are created by society, yet disability is framed as a personal failing, and we are told that it’s our responsibility to get the inclusion and access we need, even when this is functionally impossible. One person cannot fundamentally rejigger the very structure of society; I, for example, cannot singlehandedly make sure that every new construction in the United States, or even in my own community, is accessible, because there are too many obstacles in the way. Access and accommodations are treated as a tremendous hardship and a nuisance and disability is framed as a burden: On society, on family members, on schools, on hospitals. This contributes to persistent social attitudes about disability that make it harder for us to achieve inclusion.
This doesn’t mean we should just give up. But it does mean that looking at disability solely from the perspective of a more personalised model makes it inherently difficult to address a lot of issues impacting people with disabilities. Making the focus on individuals, rather than institutions, also allows society to get a free pass on the barriers it creates; it’s our fault, evidently, that we are more likely to experience poverty, rape, sexual assault.
In employment, 56% of adults with impairments experienced restrictions in “the type or work they did or the salary they were paid” compared with just 26% of the general population.
This income inequality severely disadvantaged those with disabilities. Almost a third of households with an adult with impairments said they could not afford a week away on holiday each year – compared with just one in five of other households.
Shockingly, 12% of adults with impairments experienced difficulty “accessing rooms within their home or difficulty getting in or out of their home” compared with just 1% of adults without impairments. (‘Disabled people ‘twice as likely’ to miss out on careers, courses and holidays‘)
The survey also found that stress is a significant contributor in the lives of many people with disabilities, and when you are disabled, you are much more likely to be living on the edge. From the same article:
An unexpected bill of £500 would leave 38% of impaired adults struggling compared with 26% of their able-bodied peers.
“It is hard to know whether this is because people with impairments have reduced incomes or because they have higher living costs,” said Howe.
I would note that the UK is also in the process of putting through brutal cuts to the disability living allowance, making financial hardship even more likely in the future. Writing at Comment is free, Sharon Brennan notes:
A disabled person’s disability will not go away just because the government has decided to save 20% on its DLA bill. The only change will be that those affected will have to fund the higher costs of living out of their own pocket. And these pockets are already threadbare. These cuts will affect a sector of society that the Disability Alliance UK states is already twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens.
The Daily Telegraph took the ‘but disabled people really want to work‘ tack in its reporting, stressing the barriers to employment for people with disabilities and how this translates into increased financial hardship.
Almost half of households where at least one person had a disability (45 per cent) were unable to afford expenses or make loan repayments, compares to 29 per cent of households where no-one had an impairment.
Barriers to transport were also noted as a significant obstacle, whether people with disabilities are trying to get to work, socialise, or access an education. We are more likely to rely on public transport, for a variety of reasons, and we often encounter inaccessible transportation, essentially trapping us at home. This is a social obstacle, not a personal one. Wheelchair users, for example, are not inherently immobile; they are immobilised by inaccessible transit, by broken buses, by drivers who refuse to pick them up, by sidewalks that are not maintained.
The study also noted that some social obstacles, like high costs for housing and transport, impact nondisabled people as well. Addressing those barriers to access would benefit not just disabled members of society, but low income people in general. Making changes to work towards a more inclusive society, in other words, isn’t just about ‘the disability agenda.’ It’s about basic measures that would be helpful for all humans.
These results are being called ‘enlightening,’ which is what happens when you ignore people who have been shouting loud and clear for decades about barriers to social access, and when you decide that conducting surveys to learn more about the specific needs of the disabled community is so unimportant that you only need to do it every 13 years or so. These results are only ‘enlightening’ and ‘shocking’ to people who haven’t been paying very close attention.
Meanwhile, in the United States, another study recently released notes that people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience violent crime.