The Issues Surrounding Disability Social Work

Categories: Lord Byron

There is a lot of discussion of how disability is described. The literal meaning of disability is “difficulty with ability”. This implies some form of mental or physical impairment that can manifest problems with mobility or awareness. According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, disability impairments can include sensory impairments such as hearing or sight, mental impairments such as depression or learning difficulties and physical impairments such as wheelchair users.

People with disabilities may face problems, and not only because of their particular impairments but by social factors such as attitudes, stigma and physical obstructions, for example, ease of access to buildings or transport.

The description of disability has varied over the years but the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 describes it as,

“he/she has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on his/her ability to carry out normal day to day activities”

Thompson and Thompson (2008) state that historically, people with disabilities were considered “tragic, different or in some way devious”.

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They were not allowed to work, mix with others or travel and many were placed in asylums. Ingstad and Reynolds, (1995) claims that, media representation of disability often relates to insanity and evil. This is evident in such things as super hero movies, where the bad character is often portrayed as physically deformed or mentally unstable.

However, throughout history there have been people with impairments that in today’s society would have been viewed as disabled, Franklin D Roosevelt, four times president of the United States, had polio.

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The poet Lord Byron (mad Lord Byron), who was born with “talipes”, known then as a club foot, and whose name today is still synonymous for someone dashing, “Byronic”. Admiral Nelson, known for his great naval victories against the Napoleonic French and particularly the battle of Trafalgar, he is not viewed as disabled although he was blind in one eye and only had one arm. In today’s society he would have been seen as a disabled seaman. But when we look at these people we do not see their disabilities, we see heroes, great leaders and writers. Did society just look past their impairment and just see their achievements?. (Ingstad and Reynolds, 1995).

According to Finkelstein (1980), people with disabilities have existed in comparatively large numbers throughout the world and in different societies for centuries. What is also evident is that the cultural understanding and responses to impairment and disability have varied and still do. There is a real cultural stigma towards people that have any sort of physical or mental difference to the “norm”. This can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman times.

Finkelstein (1980) goes on to say that, all though the degree of bias has varied from time to time, people’s perceptions of impairment and disability have remained much the same since the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. The start of the industrial revolution introduced the concepts of urbanization and paid labour. This brought new problems for people who were unable to compete for work. After being scrutinised and labelled by doctors and other professionals, these people were put in to hospitals or asylums where they remained for very long periods and sometimes indefinitely. This kind of treatment carried on throughout most of the western world and all through the first half of the twentieth century.

Drake (1999), states that the Eugenic legacy, which looked at the assumptions of human mental characteristics, was in some way influential in forming a different outlook on impairments. Drake continues, the Eugenic legacy came to a logical conclusion during the systematic murders in the Nazi death camps of thousands of disabled people considered undeserving of life, worthless and a burden on society.

In the 17th century impairments or disabilities were seen as punishments from God, and explained by using religion, superstition, or myths and legend. Some of these beliefs remain to this day such as the belief that a disabled person must have been evil in a previous life and is now being punished. (Campbell and Oliver 1995)

I remember in 2003 former England manager, Glenn Hoddle was sacked from his position for saying that disabled people are paying for sins they committed in a previous life. But in other religious cultures in societies, disability may be seen as being chosen by god. (Campbell and Oliver 1995)

Cultural values and Society can be responsible for imposing disability on someone with impairments. This is mostly done unintentionally or by misinterpretation but it results in excluding people with some form of impairment from participating in society. Therefore it is understandable that disabled people will see themselves, as an oppressed group. To understand this, there has to be a definition between the person with the impairment and the social construction, called disability. (Oliver 1996) What this means is that today’s society defines the impairment as it is seen, i.e. the lack of a limb or limbs, organism or motor functions of the body that are not working properly, and the disability as the restrictions and disadvantages that go with it. Oliver, states that,

“We see disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them.” (Oliver 1996, p22)

The common view today, according to Campbell and Oliver (1995) is that a person’s impairment is the cause of their disability and that their disability is a medical problem that has to be overcome. This refers to the ‘medical model’ approach which focuses on prevention and cure. In many countries this has caused a growth of prosperous and costly industries involved with disability comprising voluntary organisations, drug companies, private businesses, charities and government institutions. These will be staffed by an army of professionals including support workers, doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and social workers. This attitude can have a negative effect on the way society see people with impairments and will result in stigmatisation. In addition to this, if society sees the impairment as the problem, surely it is logical to see that these problems must be cured or fixed in order for them to fit in to “normal society”. The outcome is that, people with disabilities are labelled as “disabled people” this may look like a play on words but what this shows is that the disability is seen before the person. Society sees people with disabilities as, “not normal”, this implies “abnormal”, and further reinforce the stigmatisation and stereotyping of people with disabilities being seen as inadequate and dependant.

Are some people with disabilities more vulnerable than others

According to Hales (1996, p152)

“Prejudice is a negative attitude towards particular groups of people based on negative traits assumed to be uniformly displayed by members of that group”

Hales uses the example, that it is commonly assumed, that younger people with learning disabilities have no interest in forming long term relationships, an adult sex life or having children. Hales describes this as issue as being “social attitude” rather than the physical disabilities faced by the people themselves.

It is difficult to say if some people with disabilities are more vulnerable to discrimination than others as there are so many factors to consider. Cost for example. Barnardo’s (2011) state that, the costs involved in bringing up a child with a disability is much greater than raising non disabled children. Barnardo’s also state that, it may not just be the higher cost of living, no qualifications and unemployment that are causing discrimination. But the fact that living in deprived communities where the understanding of disability is lower than the more affluent areas.

One fifth of children with disabilities live in poverty stricken areas, resulting in social exclusion, discrimination and causing multiple oppressions. (Barnardo’s (2011).

Marginalisation and exclusion refers to people with disabilities not being included in everyday life. This includes non equality in the work place. (Barns and Mercer 2003) state that, while some benefits such as disability living allowance (DLA), are in place to help people cope financially with social and work factors, it can also have an adverse effect by highlighting a dependency on benefits. This again can lead to stigmatisation and oppression. New labour recognised this problem and developed the “welfare to work policy” in 1997. The government documented that unemployment for people with disabilities was far higher than it was with non disabled people. A high percentage of people with learning disabilities live in poverty. 24 % of working age people with disabilities do not have formal qualifications. (HM Government 2011)

The government recognises a link between unemployment and social exclusion. In 1989 the government set up the social exclusion unit (SEU) to improve the educational prospects for children with disabilities. Although this was a step in the right direction, it is worth noting that the minister for education at this time was David Blunkett, who is classed as a person with a disability. (Dan 2005)

When people think of disability they think of the obvious such as wheelchair users. There are some things put in place for people with physical disabilities. Examples of these are wider doors, ramps, higher power points, lower light switches, audio and visual aids, lowering busses and disabled parking (Hales 1996). But in my opinion people with learning disabilities seem to be less understood. Therefore, I feel that, it can be argued that people with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to discrimination than other.

Why do some people reject the disability label and some accept it?

According to Barnes (1991), some people will accept the disability label, feeling that they are not able to cope in society and they are in a sort of limbo, waiting for a cure and the hope that one day they may get fixed. This may be because they have been conditioned by a non disabled society to accept their lot in life; they are broken and need a cure. Some disabled people will obviously want a cure and will actively help in working to find one, thus giving their life some meaning and a reason to belong.

“Some need to succeed in order to belong, some need to belong in order to succeed.” (Hill Country Disabled Group)

According to Clapton & Fitzgerald (1997) this stems back to the medical model of disability that perceives impairment as something that has to be fixed, i.e. a person is disabled because of their individual impairment so consequently they will require medical interventions to give them the skills to adapt in our non disabled society.

There are disadvantages to being labelled as disabled. But there can also be advantages. In my experience, in having dyslexia, (which was discovered while I was at university), I am classed as a disabled student. I do not see myself as being disabled as there are no physical signs of dyslexia and it is something I have lived with all my life without knowing. Initially, I resented the disability label, but in accepting it, I received the help I need to complete my course. Some of my fellow students see such a label as stigmatising, and even though they have similar pattern of difficulties, they did not want to seek help for fear of being labelled.

There are the people who see disability as a social problem put on them by a non disabled society that impairs physically disabled people. It is argued that no one has made a specific distinction between biological impairment and social disability. (Clapton & Fitzgerald (1997)

This is seen as the key to the British ‘social model’ of disability and was originally devised by disabled rights activists in the 1970s. This move forward was developed by disabled people and their own experiences of living with impairment in Western society

(UPIAS 1976)

The social model has been widely acknowledged and developed by disability rights groups all over the world. It is now the foundation and the principle way of thinking in regard to policy-making for countries as diverse as Japan, South Africa and the USA. The social model of disability is not complicated; it just highlights the cultural, economic and environmental barriers experienced by people who are seen by others as impaired. According to Barnes (1991), these barriers can include: education problems, communication issues, problems within the working environments, insufficient disability benefits, social support services, inaccessible transport, housing and public buildings and the devaluing of people labelled ‘disabled’ by negative imagery and representation in the media such as films, television and newspapers.

From this viewpoint it is easy to see why some people will reject the label of being disabled and see their disability as a failure by society to accommodate their personal and combined needs within the confines of conventional society.

(Barnes 1991)

What can be done to effectively counter discrimination?

Oliver (1990).explains that, people’s perceptions of disability and rehabilitation are changing. The 1960s saw the start of this change with politicians, policy makers and social workers realising that the world can no longer look at the disability issue as an individualistic medical problem, (Barnes and Mercer 2003).

One of the reasons for this is that people with any form of impairment, be it cognitive or physical, are seen as abnormal and labelled as “disabled”. The fact is, that these people represent a growing segment of the global population and must be treated as equals.

In brief, this means that the social model of disability is a tool to help us recognise the disablement caused by society’s preconceptions of people with disabilities and help improve policy making. (Oliver 2004)

Ten years ago, Glasby and Littlechild (2002), stated that, what is needed to effectively counter discrimination is to move away from government run professional services. They foresaw a need for greater investment in “user led” initiatives, especially regarding direct payments. This should give thousands of disabled people across the UK a better chance of achieving real independent living.

Glasby and Littlechild go on to say that this could be achieved by setting up a new national body working directly with the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL).

Along with the distribution of direct payments, this new organisation could produce a standardized assessment for direct payments, reducing mistakes and making it easier for service users.

Barns (2004) explained that, such an organization could also monitor local user groups that provide services for direct payment users. This would also give this new organisation the opportunity to benefit from a wealth of experience and expertise that has been developed by disabled people for over twenty years. (Barns 2004)

The problem at this time was that, the government authorities were reluctant to implement direct payment policy for a number of reasons.

Nowadays, direct payments are offered as a matter of course. During my third year placement in social services, It was actively encouraged to offer this service, in fact, I could not complete a unified assessment without doing so.

We also recognise organisations such as the Rowan. This is a registered charity that provides direct Payment and Personal Budget support for service users. The Rowan has a vision of,

“A society that is fully inclusive in which the barriers, whether environmental, attitudinal or institutional, that prevent disabled people from having equality of opportunity have been removed.” (The Rowan Organization 2012)

As social workers we have the training to act in a non discriminatory way. We follow guidelines in our codes of practice such as, upholding public trust in social services and not unlawfully discriminating service users. Anti discriminatory practice is fundamental to the practice of good social work. It is important not to assume what difficulties people have with their disabilities. This in itself is a form of oppression, as only people with disabilities will know what it’s like to face disability discrimination.

I feel that one of the most important roles as a social worker is advocacy. This will ensure that the voices of peoples with disabilities are heard.

Legislation is main area that can help fight discrimination and oppression. The Equality Act 2010 enforces a duty on employers to make adaptations that will aid disabled people in the work place. This act also makes it illegal to treat people differently because of their disability.

According to Barns (2003), the equality movement and looking into the problems of disablement has brought forward the concept of independent living. This concept was first used in the United Kingdom during the 1970s, after being adopted by disability activists in the USA. These activists called themselves the “ILM” or independent living movement. This movement was partly developed within campuses of American universities and partly from the on-going efforts of the disability activists who were attempting to influence, not only US disability legislation in the 1960s. But also, people’s discriminating perceptions of disabled people.

Disability Wales ran a campaign from April 2010 to March 2011. This was called “independent living now”. This highlighted six main “calls to action” that disabled people had deemed essential in further development of Independent Living. These are:

1. “Improved access to information, advice, independent advocacy and peer support services for all

2. Availability of accessible and supported housing to meet individual requirements

3. A comprehensive range of options and genuine choice and control in how personalized care and support is delivered

4. Improved access to Person Centered Technology (aids & equipment)

5. A barrier free transport system, including all modes of transport

6. Enabling access, involvement and social, economic and cultural inclusion for all disabled people”.

This concept of independent living is a broad one and is usually associated with younger and middle aged people with physical and sensory conditions. But this concept does apply to everyone in the disabled population. This includes people with high support needs and people with cognitive conditions such as learning disabilities and mental illness (Barnes 2003). Because of this, independent living does have some criticisms. My own experience of working with a young man who had learning disabilities was not very successful. This person was granted independent living and was given his own flat. The problem was that all his “friends” did not have any kind of impairment. This was causing real problems as they were encouraging him to spend his disability allowance on alcohol and having parties at his flat. In turn this was causing problems with the neighbours because of the constant noise. This also resulted in him not having any money for food and being drunk most of the time. This was causing him to have health problems, which resulted in him being returned home to his parents.


In concluding this assignment, I have discussed why there is disability discrimination both from an historic and societal point of view and how people are disabled by these views. I have also discussed the different levels of vulnerability and who I feel are the most vulnerable in our society. In addition, I have covered why some people accept the disability label whilst others reject it, and what can be done in the hope of effectively countering disability discrimination.

3249 words


Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Equality Act 2010

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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The Issues Surrounding Disability Social Work. (2019, Aug 19). Retrieved from

The Issues Surrounding Disability Social Work essay
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