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Opinion - The social explanation of disability

2021-09-17  Reverend Jan Scholtz

Opinion - The social explanation of disability
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The social model of disability has gained traction in recent decades at an international level and in many domestic jurisdictions, including Namibia and South-Africa.  In Western Europe, the social model has its genesis in the work of British activist who in 1976, wrote. “In our new, it is society which disables. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated an excluded from full participation in society.  Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society.”

The focus of the social model is therefore, on all things that restricts disabled persons, ranging from individual prejudice to institutional discrimination, from inaccessible to unable transport systems, from segregated education to excluding work arrangements, etc.  (M. Oliver 33).

The consequences of these failures does not fall on individuals randomly but on disabled person as a group, who experience institutional discrimination throughout society.  While the classical articulations of social model recognise that impairment – a partial or total loss of physical or mental function – may be important in terms of describing the state of a person’s body, these do not recognise bodily impairment as the cause of disability (M. Oliver 35).  

The restrictions imposed on persons with disabilities by impairment are thus not emphasised, and the model focuses rather on the ways in which society erects barriers to the full participation and advancement of disabled persons.

In legal discourse, minority groups model, which was developed in North America, has been popular.  This model view disabled persons as being part of an oppressed group in society who have suffered and are suffering systematic discrimination and social exclusion in similar ways to groups who are marginalised based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other characteristics (R. Imne 2004).  The focus, therefore, is on identity and power relations in society. The primary message of the social model was simple and could be conveyed easily – society should look in the mirror when seeking the causes of disability, instead of evaluating individuals against ‘objective’, ‘medical’ standards developed by mainstream society (Kanter 420).  Social understanding of disability vary in the degree to which disability is attributed to social and environmental factors.  Oliver’s statement that ‘disability is wholly and exclusively social’ (Oliver 35) is perhaps the most extreme variation.  Yet even Oliver points out that the social models is not meant to deal with the personal restrictions cause by impairment (M. Oliver 1996).

In summary, it is clear that there are important synergies between social understanding of disability and mainstream approaches to substantive equality.  Both foresee the imposition of positive action to address the disadvantage caused by the past and continuing discrimination.  We are aware that the varied resources required for this transformation are limited, and it is evident that government faces a difficult task in balancing diverse and urgent demands.  At least we can seek to hold all relevant role players, both private and public, accountable and require them to work progressively to ensure access to work for those disabled persons who cannot work in the open labour market.   Supported employment and other means of productive works so that these vulnerable individuals status be recognise as members of our communities.

2021-09-17  Reverend Jan Scholtz

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