The biggest barrier for people with disability is how society disables them

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Stereotyping, stigma, and discrimination are challenges people with disability face every day. Much of the disabled community faces exclusion from parts of society other people take for granted.

Disability exclusion has stemmed from the belief that having a disability makes you ‘less than.’ In recent years, the disabled community has also been silenced by the popularised positivity movement that believes ‘the only disability is a bad attitude.’ Although on a surface level this statement sounds encouraging, both attitudes have the underlying message that it is up to the disabled community to change if they want to be part of society.

Disability activist Stella Young explained brilliantly the barriers that people with disability face are societal and that no amount of positivity will be able to break these barriers down.

“You know, no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never. Smiling at a television screen isn’t going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into Braille,” said Stella.

To become an all-inclusive and accessible society we need to change the way we view disability and collaborate with the disabled community to break down barriers.

The social model vs the medical

So, how do we change our lens on disability? There are two models that view disability in vastly different ways: social and medical.

The medical model views disability as a consequence of a health condition, disease or accident that disrupts function. The model focuses on preventing or curing the condition. Here, disability is something ‘wrong’ that needs fixing to make a person more ‘normal’.

The social model of disability completely flips this perspective. It sees disability as the attitudinal, physical, systemic, communication, and technological barriers created by society. It does not deny the impact of an individual’s impairment, but it does seek to put the responsibility on society to accommodate people living with disability, rather than expecting the individual to accommodate for society.

a graphic of a stick figure. one the right side of the stick figure are examples of the medical model including "cant go to the cinemas because they are Deaf." on the left side of the stick figure are examples of the social model including "cinemas hasn't provided closed captions."
The medical model VS the social model

Removing barriers in society

The social model of disability states that there are six different types of barriers people with disability face. Barrier removal requires expertise, collaboration, advocacy and legal backing. Everyone can play a part in educating themselves about these barriers and learn how to create new pathways to ensure our society is as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Attitudinal barriers

Attitudinal barriers are created by individuals who can only see the impairment and not the person with a disability. At its worst believing in the stigma attached to disability can result in bullying, isolation and even violence.

On the flip side of this, people can be incredibly patronising using people with disability as ‘inspirational porn.’ Although this belief has no malicious intent, people with disability do not exist to make others feel good. Being condescending can cause just as much damage as being purposefully hurtful.

Stella Young spoke about the effects different attitudes have on the disabled community in her 2014 TED Talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.”

“I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people,” said Stella.

This barrier is the underlying issue of all the other barriers. People may be unaware of their negative attitudes which is why it is important to make a conscious effort to unlearn these stereotypes. Everyone is deserving of the same respect and rights no matter their disability.

Physical barriers

Physical barriers refer to environments that are inaccessible due to the way they were designed.

Examples include buildings with no wheelchair access, ineffective lighting that creates poor visibility for people with low vision, sidewalks that are too narrow for walking aids or doorknobs that are difficult to grasp for people with arthritis.

There is already a lot of change being made in this space, like the introduction of wheelchair-accessible beach mats and low sensory quiet hours at grocery stores. However, there is always more to be done. Architects, designers, builders, and town planners need to put accessibility first to ensure everyone can enjoy society, rather than a select few.

Systemic barriers

Systemic barriers are the laws, policies, practices, or strategies designed by the government or organisations that discriminate against people with disabilities.

The systemic barriers often stop people from living their day-to-day life. Someone in a wheelchair may struggle to get places if their local train station does not have a ramp or someone with sensory processing issues may struggle to complete work if they are denied a reasonable adjustment of using noise-cancelling headphones.

Unfortunately, discriminatory laws and policies are often only changed after immense pressure from advocacy groups.

Alastair McEwin AM is the Commissioner for the disability royal commission and strongly believes that removing systemic barriers is key to achieving inclusion.

a man stands next to a window smiling and his arms folded
Peter who is on the autism spectrum has found his productivity at work has increased since using noise-cancelling headphones.

“My drive for the work I do is, quite simply, to ensure that in the future, no disabled person has to experience discrimination or barriers to mainstream society in the same way I have experienced discrimination and barriers as a deaf person,” said Alastair.

Communication barriers

Communication barriers affect people who have disabilities that impact their hearing, speaking, reading, writing, or understanding. Communication is intertwined with everything we do. We need communication to work, build relationships and seek support.

Just because someone does not communicate in the same way you do does not mean they should be left out of the conversation. Breaking down communication barriers can be very simple. Speech pathologist Dr Joanne Steel put it clearly when suggesting ways to improve communication.

“Regardless of their speech abilities or cognitive skills, everyone has the right to communicate. So treat them the same as you would any other person, talk directly to them, and ask them questions,” said Joanne.

Other ways we can improve communication include hiring an Auslan interpreter at speaking events, including braille or electronic versions of menus at restaurants, and writing important information in simple, plain English.

Josh pushing a big green laundry basket in front of a front loading washing machine
Josh is a hands-on learner so his employer showed him how to do his tasks, rather than telling him.

Technological and digital barriers

Technology has many benefits for people with disability. It has helped to break down some of the barriers on this list. Thanks to technology people with disability have been able to access education, work remotely and improve communication and community connection. However, there are still some major accessibility barriers that come with technology.

For technology to benefit people with disability, web accessibility tools need to be utilised by everyone. For example, the alternative text or photo description tool is useless if the author has not written one.

Young woman sits at desk smiling. On her desk are two computer monitors
Ebony who is visually impaired uses ZoomText that magnifies her two screens and can read to her if her eyes become tired.

Breaking down barriers as an employer

There are many different ways employers can break down barriers for people with disability. One of the most impactful ways is to hire someone with disability. Not only does employing someone with a disability help the person become a contributing member of society but it can also have major benefits for the business.

At EPIC Assist we understand it can be hard to know where to start when hiring someone with a disability for the first time. We work closely with employers to understand their needs and find the right person for the job. We also offer guidance and can help organise workplace adjustments as well as provide ongoing support after the employee is on the job.

If you are looking to help break down barriers for people with disability and make diverse and inclusive hiring a priority, contact EPIC Assist today.

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