Do We Need New Disablism Laws?

The coalition government has certainly put disability top on the political agenda, both in terms of welfare reforms and social care. This has provided fresh motivation for existing disability activists to campaign for something better, as well as politicalising a new generation of disabled people who have a range of experiences and understandings of the issues as beginners, novices and experts. Some disabled people will understand the social model of disability (that disability is about environmental and attitudinal barriers faced by people with impairments), while others will frame it in terms of the medical model (disability is natural inferiority that needs curing or eliminating) because of their connection with health services.

What I often hear is a call for laws to eliminate disablism and give disabled people more rights, and I firstly wonder if people are aware of the many national, European and International laws that already protect the rights of disabled people. The Disability Discrimination Act was first enacted in November 1995, strengthened in 2005 and then incorporated into the Equalities Act in 2010. It may not be perfect but it is there and I am not sure many people are aware of it, or try to use the existing laws we have to their full potential.

While I appreciate and value the legislation we have to protect disabled people, I do believe it is only half the story. Any law is just words on paper if it is not properly implemented and that requires a shift in people’s behaviour, that will eventually result in a shift in their attitudes. I have realised you can mandate people to follow specific behaviours in the workplace etc, like the smoking ban, but you can not just change attitudes at the flick of a switch.

I think the answer to if we need new disabilism laws is no, because right now no law would provide the behavioural and so attitudinal changes we are all looking for. Instead, we need to support organisations and individuals to question and challenge their own behaviour and attitudes towards disabled people, through consultancy and training activities, as well as campaigning and other activities.

We need to see more disabled people in the media in a diverse range of roles and with a diverse range of opinions. The issues disabled people face, like incontinence, needs to stop being regarded as a taboo issue and dealt with on soap operas, chat shows etc in an sensible sensitive manner that is not just patronising pity. Disablism can only be broken down by normalising the issues faced by disabled people, and become an issue of general debate, like increased awareness forced marriages and breast cancer has helped raised understanding of race and gender issues.

I feel when of the greatest ways to end disablism would be to ensure inclusive education is the norm. While I believe every child should receive the specialist education they may require, that disabled and non-disabled children should share the same school gates, playground, and dinner hall if nothing else. Only when disabled and non-disabled children are together as a norm can the real prejudices towards disabled people be broken down and new understandings forged for disabled people to be considered true members of society.

No law alone can make one person change their opinion of another person, and just adding law after law to try to will not help anyone, and may actually cause harm and resentment. Instead, we need to get our hands dirty and actually step by step, person by person, create better understanding and behaviour, that could result in better attitudes if we play our cards right.

This requires a commitment to take action from everyone, without just relying on the law to sort things out, because that is not what laws are about. Any law merely creates the rules of the game but we must be willing to play to win. Ending discrimination for disabled people has no quick fix, and yet another law will not help us achieve it any faster.

from Simon Stevens


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