Hardly a day seems to pass that isn’t marked in some way or another. Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities (#IDPD) and so we’ve invited academic and Policy Press author Alan Roulstone to share his thoughts on the value of such days and how the perception of disability has or hasn’t shifted since he last blogged for us before the Olympics in 2012. He writes:
When reflecting on the forthcoming International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 December) I was drawn to one of my favourite passages in the English literary canon:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us… [Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, 1859]
When applied to disabled people and the realities of life in 21st Century Europe and beyond, we can see that many inhumane long-stay institutions have now closed, we can witness higher expectations amongst disabled people, some get paid work, be married and take part in the mainstream of life. At best there might even be a sense of “so what” about aspects of these questions: that disabled people are simply living alongside everyone else, in ordinary houses, sharing the same dreams, getting distracted by the same distractions.
The recent Olympics can even be posited to have raised the bar yet further, in increasing awareness of what disabled people can do, their physical prowess, their endurance and grit in climbing to the top of their sport. Images of famous disabled people abound: Ellie Simmons, Stephen Hawking, Simon Weston, Ade Adepitan. So why no sounds of clarions, no frisson of excitement and sense of no-turning back at the prospect of the IDPD?
“just as you think everything is okay and the wheels of social life are running smoothly you hit an inevitable snag”
Well it would be churlish to deny the origins of the day in the Disabled People’s Movement’s international struggle to be part of the mainstream, and the UN’s official support for this over time. It would be wrong to overlook the great achievements of many disabled people, whether or not they see themselves as disabled.
The best way to sum up the paradox of being disabled is that just as you think everything is okay and the wheels of social life are running smoothly you hit an inevitable snag. A lift seems permanently out-of-order, the man at the bus stop stares at you for just a little too long, you find yourself in jobs that are made precarious by public sector cuts.
These in turn could be seen as ‘just bad days’, random and unpredictable events that could affect anyone. This might be the case. However the evidence continues to suggest that as a disabled person the paid labour market remains harder to access, public transport remains a site of contestation, most recently narrated as wheelchair users vs babies-in-buggies, and that you are more likely to be the victim of violent crime.
Despite the Olympics, you find your only accessible swimming pool is earmarked for closure. Then you open your local paper and read that another learning disabled adult has been seriously assaulted or a blind man pushed onto a railway track [as happened recently in Chelmsford, Essex].
The International Day of Persons with Disabilities aims:
…. to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life [UN Enable]
As with any very broad brush objective by a global body such as the UN, the sentiments are profoundly welcome. The fact that disabled people can be part of a culture and make their own identities and cultures is so important. Many achievements have been registered in the lives of disabled people and it would be a curmudgeon who refused to recognise these. Indeed, there is a moral obligation to acknowledge these at every possible juncture.
“Do they change society, or to be a little cynical, do they ride the wave of change?”
We do not know, however, just how much UN initiatives, Conventions and events really make a difference. Do they change society, or to be a little cynical, do they ride the wave of change? Certainly the UN’s role in the global South is much more defined and clearly observable; in the global North state systems, histories and cultures mediate in a complex way such initiatives and Conventions. The failure of many states to ratify, or more commonly to substantiate, pledges is the real issue perhaps, as is how to measure this substantiation.
Longer-run processes of global investment patterns, an ageing population, credential inflation and resource scarcity all serve to challenge disabled people’s social integration. Meanwhile some disabled people are forced to live in institutions they would rather not live in [Winterbourne View being an obvious example]. Conversely some disabled older people wish to stay in the ‘care’ home and are being decanted into uncertain futures in the name of modernisation [cuts?]. Health spending on acute care has held up relatively speaking [Kings Fund, 2013], but spending on social care has led to an unprecedented post-war crisis in social support.
I shall be marking the IDPD unobstrusively. I shall emit a cautious smile or two which may perplex the person sitting next to me on my commuter train, a smile of recognition that disabled people matter. I shall be sobered by the first bad news story about disabled people’s lives and struggles I read later that day. Trust me, I don’t go looking for them.
It was the best of times and yet the worst of times…….
If you liked this you might like…
Understanding disability policy, edited by Alan Roulstone, Simon Prideauxmore and is available from Policy Press website at 20% discount.
A free chapter from the book is also available for you to read here.
Alan’s previous guest blog can be found here: The Paralympic Legacy – A New Dawn or a False Dawn for Disabled People?
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