Disability and Happiness

This Is Not a Contradiction in Terms says Matt Smith, London School of Economics & Political Science.

Though my upbringing was based in Liverpool, I have resided (almost continuously),since the age of 18, in London. In the years following this southward journey, my awareness of disability politics grew as I struggled to access many physical spaces (and consequently, areas of life) as an adult.

Matt Smith, Author

My current research predominantly concerns the link between portrayals of disabled people in the media and their position in society. Outside the ‘political realm’, I enjoy learning Japanese, collecting vinyl records and visiting new restaurants (as and when lockdown rules permit).

Happiness. Sadly, it is a subject mainstream society seems to have ostracised from conversations with disabled people. In my view, the rationale for this embargo is multifaceted. An available line of reasoning is that generally nondisabled people judge the lives of their disabled counterparts to be much bleaker than the life satisfaction actually reported by disabled individuals themselves (see Longmore, 2016). By this mainstream logic, then, it may seem merciful to avoid taunting a supposedly miserable band of people by delving into the idea of happiness with them. A second, more sinister possibility, is that nondisabled people, to some degree (how ever minor), recognise the risk of being informed about what would actually cause disabled people to be happier, if any related questions are asked. Responses may urge additional public spending on personal assistance services or accessible housing, for example. Fear of facing such demands may incline society to believe ignorance is bliss and to conjecture that misery is simply indissociable from impairment so that expenditure conducive to the equality of disabled people can be overlooked with an air of innocence.

If mainstream society is uncomfortable bringing disabled people’s happiness to the fore, then the Our Voice session on Tuesday 20th April 2021 bulldozed this inhibition by pondering what enables disabled people to enjoy life? Instinctual suggestions from group members revolved around activities such as socialising with friends. The corresponding barriers were then explored. For example, there are numerous obstacles to disabled people forming deep and voluntary friendships – some of these are physical. At present, multiple disabled friends who are wheelchair users could not ride the same bus together in London due to a lack of designated spaces. At the other end of the spectrum, disabled people with little in common are sometimes lumped together in housing blocks or units that are segregated from the rest of society to propel home-building efficiency. Other obstacles are attitudinal; it was agreed at the Our Voice meeting that many disabled children are raised to strive for normalisation. Regrettably, this process can mandate masking the appearance or effects of impairment and dissociating oneself from the disabled community.

As the discussion developed, four elements basic to happiness as a disabled person surfaced: community, empowerment, choice and control. As I perceive it, this constellation of concepts can be connected like so: a sense of community begets empowerment through the acquisition of strength in numbers. Having undergone empowerment, a disabled person then possesses the courage to insist upon choice and independence from the configuration of their living arrangements. By gaining access to choice, a disabled person is then in a position to exercise control over their own lives.

It is worth flagging here there is no guarantee that a sense of community will eventuate in a disabled person having control over their life; a crucial mediating factor is the assiduity of disabled campaigners to champion the introduction of legislation which promotes the autonomy of disabled people. Warriors in the disability movement such as Jane Campbell and John Evans have laboured tenaciously to drive into law the right of disabled people to experience independent living.  In 2008, the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities was effectuated. However, the UK government is yet to fully embed Article 19 (which affirms the rights of disabled persons to participate within the general community with the same freedom of choice accorded to others) within a domestic legal framework.

During the COVID era, as Lockdown rules were imposed, backlash erupted in the form of furious protests decrying the curtailment of personal freedom. From where I am sitting, these reactions were a vivid illustration of what happens when nondisabled people are temporarily required to endure restrictions of the sort that disabled people are expected to tolerate on a permanent basis (in the absence of sufficient assistance-oriented services). The restoration of normality hinted by the relaxation of lockdown will hopefully ease society’s angst and anguish over the general population’s short-term loss of liberty. That said, will society remember long into the future, the feeling induced by a mass deprivation of independence and accordingly, will society act to enhance the happiness of disabled people by pressing for legislated expansions to provisions and services supporting their personal autonomy? Only time will tell.

On a surer note, Allfie’s Our Voice project has bolstered the happiness of young disabled people during the pandemic. This much can be gleaned from the visible enjoyment each contributor displayed during the meetings. My own affection for the sessions has stemmed, inter alia, from the opportunity to challenge and analyse the labels affixed to disabled people during the pandemic. For example, it was immensely reassuring to discover that I am not the only person irked by being termed ‘vulnerable’ or by being treated as likely to be extraordinarily infectious. My suspicion is that every other member of the group appreciates the same sense of reassurance. This affinity, kindled by the Our Voice project, has been truly precious, especially because the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened disabled people’s wellbeing by inflicting turbulence upon their sense of community (aside from the medical impacts). Recall from earlier that a sense of community is precursory to empowerment. Therefore, what Allfie has safeguarded by convoking disabled people to canvass their views is the openness of a pathway to empowerment. This is such a laudable triumph and a sincere message of thanks is owed to all the project facilitators and funders who have endorsed Our Voice.   


Blog by M P Smith, London School of Economics & Political Science

For The Alliance for Inclusive Education





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