Discrimination is a real and distressing problem that continues to exist in modern day society. A sociological term that describes the attitudes and treatments adopted by members of mainstream society towards persons of specific groups on the sole basis of group or category, it is often translated into harmful and diminishing behaviour by members of the dominant group towards other groups (Stone, 2005, p 23-49).
Discrimination takes place against various groups on the basis of a range of factors including religion, race, gender, income, sexual preference, age and disability (Stone, 2005, p 23-49). Evidenced regularly in the behaviour of the more powerful segments of society against members of less powerful groups, discriminatory behaviour stems from deeply entrenched and socialised beliefs and is often unintentionally and unconsciously expressed. The recent statement by Barrack Obama comparing his bowling skills to those of the participants of the Special Olympics starkly illustrates the deeply entrenched attitudes of ridicule and condescension with which most “normal” people, irrespective of their education, achievements, stature, and position view people with disabilities (Riley, 2009, p1).
The last few decades, especially the ones that commenced with the closure of the Second World War, have witnessed an increasing awareness among advanced western nations of the special needs of physically and mentally disabled people, their inherent right to enjoy the privileges and dignities available to members of mainstream societies and the obligations that societies have with regard to meeting their requirements (Barnes, 2000, p 17-45).
This short essay aims to examine the causes of discrimination and oppression against disabled persons, the impact of such discrimination on the lives of disabled people and their carers, and the role of social work, especially through the use of anti-discrimination and anti-oppression theory and practice, in integrating them into mainstream society.
Disability represents an umbrella description for limitation of activity, restriction in participation, and physical or mental impairment of any kind. Discriminatory behaviour on the other hand, whilst occurring in many forms, essentially involves some type of rejection or exclusion for members of specific groups.
Barnes, et al, (2002, p 168), states that disability theory is defined by its focus on oppression and social exclusion of disabled people. The barriers that lead to such exclusion and oppression are contained in the policies and practices that are fundamental to the medical model approach to disability. The individual/medical model of disability has for long dominated service delivery. It perpetuates numerous myths about disability and impairment, chiefly that such people are ill, helpless, and incapable of running their lives and furthermore useless (Miller, et al, 2010, p 17-39). Disabled people, in terms of the medical model, are reduced to the medical circumstances that account for their mental and physical characteristics, even as little account is taken of the economic or social circumstances in which people experience such medical conditions. The medical model perceives disability as an individual tragedy needing medical solutions, personal adjustment and professional rehabilitation (Miller, et al, 2010, p 17-39). With the problems of disabled people being perceived to be a result of their impairment, disabled people are categorised as people who have inadequately functioning bodies, who look and behave differently, and who cannot carry out productive work. Such perspectives are perpetuated by an environment in which normality and abnormality is decided by experts who wish to maintain and enhance the superiority of their expertise. The control and authority of these people over the circumstances of disabled people affects them inexorably and profoundly (Miller, et al, 2010, p 17-39).
The medical model is followed by organisations like the WHO and most agencies in-charge of delivering services like health, rehabilitation and education, as well as by employers (Miller, et al, 2010, p 17-39). Assuming specific assumptions about handicap, disability and impairment, such institutions socially exclude disabled people and isolate them into institutionalised lifestyles (Miller, et al, 2010, p 17-39).
Thompson (1997) advances sociological reasons behind discrimination and resultant oppression, stating that such behaviour occurs out of deeply entrenched personal, cultural and infrastructural perceptions. Personal attitudes relate to views held by individuals about certain groups of people and are essentially based on personal likes and dislikes. Such views are supported and enhanced by cultural views that arise out of communalities or shared values and beliefs. Cultural views arise from the interaction of individuals with other people in their social, cultural and working environment. Discriminatory and oppressive attitudes are finally enhanced through structural conditions that are provided by institutions, including the media, religion and government and serve to strongly consolidate personal and cultural biases (Thompson, 1997, p 21-43).
History is replete with instances of torture of disabled people. The Spartans killed the disabled under legal sanction (Macha, 2001, p 1). Martin Luther authorised the killing of disabled children because they were believed to be incarnations of the devil. European Eugenicists, influenced by Darwinian theories about the survival of the fittest, terminated the lives of disabled people. Hitler exterminated disabled people because he thought that they did not contribute to society. Approximately four hundred thousand intellectually impaired girls were sterilised by force during the Nazi era (Macha, 2001, p 1).
Disability discrimination, whilst not exercised with such virulent and criminal intensity, continues to disadvantage millions of people across the globe (Barnes, 2000, p 17-45). The physical and mental handicaps of people with disabilities are substantially aggravated by the extensive discrimination they face in different social settings, including the job market and the environment in which they work (Barnes, 2000, p 17-45). Discriminatory attitudes in western society result in numerous disadvantages for disabled people in areas of employment, access to public transportation, access to public facilities and eligibility for housing. Most employers tend to perceive disabled employees as expensive problems and the chances of a disabled person, despite disability discrimination legislation, getting a job are far less than that of someone who is not disabled (Barnes, 2000, p 17-45).
David Ruebain, (2009, p1), a disabled person campaigning for the rights of individuals with disabilities, provides some starkly disturbing facts about the plight of the disabled in the UK, arguably one of the most advanced of global societies. Ruebain reveals that discrimination continues to be prevalent in UK society. Investigations reveal that the overwhelming majority of the polling stations in the general elections cannot be accessed by independently voting disabled people (Reubain, 2009, p 1). The chances of a non-disabled person being called for an interview against responses to public advertisements are 11.5 times that of a disabled individual. A study by the Mental Health Charity, MIND found that 47% of the surveyed people with mental health impairments had been publicly abused or harassed, even as 49% had faced abuse at home, 14% had suffered physical attacks, and 25% had faced rejection from insurance companies. The average income of disabled people is significantly lesser than the general average (Reubain, 2009, p 1). Barnes (2000) identifies a number of stereotypes for disabled people, including their being perceived as (a) pathetic and pitiable, (b) objects of violence, (c) evil and sinister, (d) curiosities, (f) supercripples, (g) objects of ridicule, (h) sexually abnormal and (i) burdens.
Discrimination affects disabled people in various ways. At one level it affects their right to lives of equality and dignity by denying them access to equality in jobs, accommodation and public facilities, thus relegating them to existences of poverty and hardship (Oliver & Sapey, 1998, p 7-33). At another level it extracts a severe emotional and mental toll by subjecting them to social exclusion and thinly veiled rejection. Children and young people with disabilities are made to feel different, inadequate and deficient in comparison with non-disabled youngsters (Oliver & Sapey, 1998, p 7-33). This causes loneliness, difficulty in understanding the reactions of others around them, difficulty in competing for academic honours or getting into educational institutions of their choice, and resentment at having to go to special schools and at the treatment given to them by others (Oliver & Sapey, 1998, p 7-33).
The carers of disabled people, especially of disabled children are also subjected to various kinds of emotional and financial pressure (Banks, et al, 2001, p 797-814). The negative and curious attitudes of other people often lead to defensive and over protective tendencies. Carers resent people asking questions about their children, feel misunderstood and isolated, and begin to feel that they have to carry the burdens of their children alone (Banks, et al, 2001, p 797-814).
Attitudes towards the disabled started changing in the UK and USA as recently as the 1960s with the growth of various progressive movements for establishment of equality and freedom from oppression with relation to race, colour and gender (Macha, 2001, p 1).
The impact of sociological thinking produced a more aware social work with greater stress on deprivation and inequality (Macha, 2001, p 1). The 1960s witnessed the first antidiscrimination legislation in the UK in the form of the Race Relations Act of 1965. This was followed by anti-discrimination legislation in different areas like gender, age, and disability (Macha, 2001, p 1). Anti-disability discrimination legislation in the UK commenced in 1970 with the passing of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill. This was followed by the Disabled Persons (Representation, Consultation and Services) Act (1986), other legislation that focused on different rights of disabled people and finally by the Disability Discrimination Act, 2005 (Macha, 2001, p 1).
The emergence and progression of radical social work brought about focus on the political and structural context of social work and impact of oppression, discrimination and ideology on the lives of the disadvantaged (Barnes et al, 2002, p 14-53). Barnes, from the results of his study of institutional discrimination, states that the policies of modern organisations lead to inequalities between disabled people and others (Barnes et al, 2002, p 14-53). He asserts that the entrenched discrimination in paternalist welfare systems result in failure in meeting the needs of disabled people (Barnes et al, 2002, p 14-53).
Recent decades have seen the emergence of anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive approaches that are specifically relevant to social work with disabled people. Thompson (1993) looks at anti-discriminatory practice as a type of social work practice that aims to reduce or eliminate discrimination and oppression of different types, including those directed at disability. Dominelli (2002) perceives anti-oppressive social work as a social work practice that tackles structural inequalities and social divisions in the work that is done with service users. It aims to provide suitable and sensitive services by tackling needs of users without regard of their social status. Such practice contains a person-centred philosophy, a classless value system, a methodology that looks at both process and results, and a method to structure relationships between individuals that benefits users by diminishing the adverse hierarchical impact of the work between social workers and users. Finkelstein (1980, p 21 – 28) states that whilst anti-discrimination legislation will help in reducing the social barriers faced by disabled people, social workers need to make special efforts in all their interventions to speed up their social integration.
“Once social barriers to the re-integration of people with physical impairments are removed, the disability itself is eliminated. The requirements are for changes to society, material changes to the environment, changes in environmental control systems, changes in social roles, and changes in attitudes by people in the community as a whole. The focus is decisively shifted on to the source of the problem -the society in which disability is created”. (Finkelstein, 1980, p 33)
Whilst significant advances have occurred in the UK in the last two decades for the integration of disabled people into society, especially in areas of legislation and in the provisioning of public facilities, much still remains to be done. Social workers are expected to play a major role in this integration through their mediating role between disabled people and mainstream society. It is important for them to remove discrimination from their own practice and confront it in the actions of others, as well as in the institutional constraints in which modern day society operates.