I used to think that being Disabled involved having a medical problem that required a medical or technical solution, if one was available. People with impairments simply had to ask for aids or adaptations, such as guide dogs, hearing aids and wheelchairs, and society would gladly accommodate their needs. Problems would only occur, I believed, if doctors, scientists and technicians hadn’t found fixes to particular conditions or impairments.
But after developing vision and heart problems, I noticed that some of the greatest barriers I faced resulted not from inadequate medical care, but from service providers being unwilling to understand or adapt to my needs.
I began to think: “Hang on, attitudes like this are making it much harder for me to live with my impairment!” – Mick Farrant
My first experience of service provider intransigence happened when the council refused to provide me with assistance to move their new 25kg wheelie bins. I had been warned I might suffer a heart attack or stroke if I exerted myself too much, so I had asked for the assistance on offer and certainly expected to get it.
But the two council officers who came to my house to interview me declared there was nothing wrong with me and turned down my request, leaving me to risk my life by lugging the bins around. My councillor helped me to sort this problem out and I just assumed the incident was one-off.
It wasn’t long, though, before a prolonged battle with the Council parking department alerted me to the possibility that societal attitudes and inflexibility were going to present me with significant problems.
After spending eight days in intensive care recovering from heart surgery, I returned home to find a letter from Camden’s parking department threatening to tow my car away. The council said I had failed to renew my residents’ parking permit within the allotted timeframe.
This alarmed me because I needed a car to get me to hospital if I had a relapse and no ambulance was available. In fact, not long after my return home, I was rushed to the Royal Free twice more, once in my car and once in an ambulance.
I explained my reasons for not responding (that I’d been in hospital) and also told them that I didn’t know how to upload my documents online. But it was no use. They wouldn’t accept what I was telling them.
I began to think: “Hang on, attitudes like this are making it much harder for me to live with my impairment!”
Yet, although I had those thoughts, I had no conceptual framework to back them up or give them shape. Then I went on the community reporters’ course at Camden Disability Action and my eyes were opened with an introduction to the social model of disability, which sits in contrast to the medical model.
The model says people with impairments are disabled by society’s failure to make adaptations for them rather than by the impairments themselves. That building owner who won’t put in a ramp. That employer who won’t make reasonable adjustments to the role for a staff member with mental health problems. That council department that won’t produce literature in accessible formats for visually impaired people. And so on and so on.
Personally, I am no longer prepared to tolerate the discrimination being meted out to me and others by a Council that I believe is institutionally disabilist – Mick Farrant
It was my light bulb moment. Now, at last, I had a conceptual framework to underpin and reinforce those thoughts swirling round my head.
My wife and I have directly experienced many socially constructed barriers since developing our impairments and we have heard about many others who have faced worse discrimination than us. Most recently, a single parent I know with mental health problems was evicted from her flat on the basis of the “no fault one month’s notice clause” and has to move from hotel to hotel every nine days to places many miles from her child’s school.
In all these cases, it is society that has prevented us from leading as good a life as possible. The social disability model is blindingly obvious but apparently not to our Council or many other organisations.
Simple solutions such as dropped kerbs, speech-to-text tablets at reception areas and large-print documents are either beyond the knowledge and experience of most Council officers or they lack sympathy and/or empathy with those of us who struggle daily unless “reasonable adjustments” are made, as required by law, to accommodate our impairments. Even the world-renowned hospital, Moorfields, gives out medications with instructions in font-size 4.
“Disability is a complex area and most people, including Disabled people have not come across the Social Model of Disability – CDA CEO Colin Brummage.
Damning reports into the discriminatory behaviour of the Metropolitan Police, English and Welsh Cricket and York County Cricket have recently been published. Is it not time that an independent investigation into the Council’s treatment of Disabled people was also carried out?
Personally, I am no longer prepared to tolerate the discrimination being meted out to me and others by a Council that I believe is institutionally disabilist.
One problem faced by Disabled people in the borough is that they are supported and represented by numerous small organisations who rarely act together. Fortunately, we have a Council Disability Oversight Panel chaired by two councillors with considerable first-hand experience of disability. This group needs more support and recognition by the Council.
One of its weaknesses has been that some of the appointed councillor champions- one for each disability – have done little to support the Panel.
I put these views to the CEO of Camden Disability Action, Colin Brummage, to see what he thought about them. Though Colin is devoted to the social model of disability and to fighting for radical change for Disabled people, he took a softer line than me.
He said: “Disability is a complex area and most people, including Disabled people have not come across the Social Model of Disability, and even if they have, may still not understand how to apply it within the context in which they work. People of course must speak out when they experience discrimination from individuals, but I am keen for the light to also be shone on the institutions and systems in which they operate.”
He added: “I see CDA has an important part to play in thought-leadership to bridge the divide with both education and empathy-building so that our institutions and communities move away from locating the source of our disadvantage with our bodies and minds. I would say to the Disability Champions or anyone who is interested in allyship to begin asking themselves the question, “what can Disabled-led organisations (like CDA) do, to help me understand Disability better so I can be an effective ally?’”.