Inclusion Now 60

UKDHM this autumn tackles two persistent misconceptions about Disabled people:

• Disabled people are not capable of full range of relationships and sexuality!
• Those with hidden impairments aren’t really Disabled people!
By Richard Rieser, Coordinator UKDHM

UK Disability History Month 2021 flyer, depicting relationships and sex, and hidden impairments. UKDHM dates are 18 November to 18 December 2021.

Pernicious stereotypes persist that wreck lives for many Disabled people. Social Services still take children away from parents with learning difficulties or mental health issues, on the basis that their Disabled parents pose a risk to their children, rather than supporting the family to overcome barriers in line with the Human Right to Family Life. While children must be protected, live-in support for the family is considered too expensive. However, placing children into ‘care’ is far more expensive and often more psychologically damaging.

The Poor Law institutions of the 19th century and 20th century were based on rigid sex segregation and harsh conditions to discourage fakery. Often, they were the only place Disabled people and their families could go to survive. Eugenicist inspired long stay hospitals and special schools from the 1880s encouraged sex segregation, sterilisation and treated inmates as if they were perpetual children. Any relationship between boys and girls and men and women were illicit.

Recent efforts to provide Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for all school students are commendable and should be supported, not just to educate Disabled children about abusive relationships, but to appreciate the joy of diverse sexual relationships. There are still many parents, teachers and others who, through their overprotectiveness, are denying the Human Right of Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health, Family Life and Sex Education. This month we can take stock of how negative attitudes from the past are impacting on our practices today.

The majority of Disabled people in the UK, as defined by the medical model definition of disability in the Equality Act (2010), would not be apparent by visible signs. They have hidden impairments. They are doubly discriminated against. Firstly because they are Disabled, and secondly as people generally do not believe them and assume them to be non-disabled.

‘You are disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. 14.1 million people in UK (OPCS).

The guidance on the definition produced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is instructive here, in describing the range of impairing conditions which will be considered. They include:

  • Sensory impairments, such as those affecting sight or hearing;
  • Impairments with fluctuating or recurring effects, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Myalgic Encephalitis (ME), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, depression and epilepsy;
  • Progressive, such as motor neurone disease, muscular dystrophy, and forms of dementia;
  • Auto-immune conditions, such as Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE);
  • Organ specific, including respiratory conditions, such as asthma, and cardiovascular diseases, including thrombosis, stroke and heart disease;
  • Developmental, such as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyspraxia;
  • Learning disabilities;
  • Mental health conditions with symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, panic attacks, phobias, or unshared perceptions; eating disorders; bipolar affective disorders; obsessive compulsive disorders; personality disorders; post-traumatic stress disorder and some self-harming behaviour;
  • Mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia;
  • Produced by injury to the body, including to the brain.

Many people with conditions made them at high risk to the effects of the COVID-19 virus. These include auto-immune conditions, diabetes, heart and lung conditions. They realised for the first time that they were Disabled people with rights and entitlements to protection from discrimination.

The problem with the Equality Act is that it puts the whole emphasis on defining a Disabled person on their impairment and its impact on carrying out ‘normal activities’, which incidentally must be viewed without the ‘impact of medication, aids and appliances’. This means, for example, those with drug-controlled epilepsy or those with HIV on antiretrovirals must be seen as their impairment would be without the effects of the medication.

A more social model influenced definition is found in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which the UK ratified in 2009, and forms a back stop in or legal appeals system: “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

In this respect, many of those with hidden impairments are hindered by barriers of attitude of others from enjoying full and effective participation in society. Not getting the reasonable adjustments they need is a major cause of discrimination and unhappiness to those with hidden impairments. The person experiencing the impairment and its impact on them, and people’s reactions to them, are best placed to know what adjustments they need and they should be collectively supported in getting these. This holds true at school, college work or in the community.

UKDHM adheres to the social model of disability in which the barriers of attitude, environment and organisation cause most of the disablism we face. Such thinking did not exist in most of the past, with individuals and their impairments held responsible for the disadvantage and worse. Disabled people experienced being seen as bewitched, evil or punished by God. Disabled people were often viewed as perpetual children, incapable of adult relationships. However, in this era of Universal Human Rights, we can look back and reinterpret the mistreatment resulting from our systematic oppression, caused by negative attitudes, ignorance and barriers. Such an examination of the past allows us to recognise what must actively change for Disabled people to achieve equality.

During UKDHM:

  • Hold a meeting in your workplace, college, or community to develop policies and practices that empower and accommodate Disabled people in their rich diversity.
  • In schools hold assemblies and introduce disability equality into course work modules
  • Attend the online UKDHM Launch contact for a place.
  • Use the resources we are developing around these twin themes on our website

UK Disability History Month 2021 flyer, depicting relationships and sex, and hidden impairments. UKDHM dates are 18 November to 18 December 2021.