The dilemma of disability


by Philip Patston.

Disability awareness is slowly becoming more commonplace in workplaces around New Zealand, though it hasn’t really taken off like other diversity issues. You find it sometimes in community organisations, particularly disability service providers, and some Government agencies.

In most cases the corporate world asks, “What does disability have to do with us?”

So here’s the dilemma: Awareness of disability is a red herring. Everyone is aware on some level that what we call “disability” exists in some people (medical model). Some are even aware that “disability” can be seen as a social construct of environmental, attitudinal and policy barriers that exclude 20% of society (social model).

What we need to become more aware of is “function”. We need to be aware that physical, cognitive, sensory, emotional and even spiritual function exists along a spectrum of diversity and everyone’s function is either determined or changes as a result of birth, age or accident.

We need to be aware of the high value placed on “positive” function, such as walking, seeing, hearing, understanding and control over emotions. We also need to be aware of the huge fear we have about losing function (which I call “dysfunctionphobia”), the denial of which causes us to think, speak and act in ways that create environments that potentially impede everyone.

The inquiry here is how to decay ideas about people being “disabled” or “non-disabled” and create the space for function to change without catastrophising it. “Brand Disabled”  is pretty unattractive – because of the impact of what I talked about in the last paragraph – and so people clamber to avoid association with that box.

Reframing function as “unique” (different in a way worthy of note) and “common” (ordinary and slightly boring) creates a new, more engaging brand of “functional diversity” — one box in which everyone exists.

The challenge is to organise our personal, professional and social lives to accommodate any kind of function.

The question is, how do we begin to believe that people adapt really well to functional change if they relax into it, so there’s nothing to fear?

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