Gary Murning

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Do the media, charities and disability rights activists—however unintentionally—present a damaging view of what it is to be "disabled"?

I'm very interested in the problems surrounding "disability identity". There are a couple of reasons this.

Firstly, I have been physically "disabled" since birth and have pretty much always had difficulty identifying with the various "models" of disability presented to me. The "them and us" mentality, the central divisiveness of the attitudes of some (whether they be "able-bodied" or "disabled"), have concerned me for many years.

Also, it interests me from a creative point of view. I'm a novelist and with my next project I hope to explore in more detail the various myths and fallacies surrounding the notion of identity—with special attention on "disability".

One of my main areas of focus for this piece of work will be the danger of good intentions—how, in fighting for the rights of certain individuals, we marginalise and, in some cases, stigmatise those involved.

This is intended as a broad, open question. Please feel free to explore and develop as you wish.

  • Dec 3 2012: Yes, this is another form of the "us" and "them" division. It seems that humans will use even the most trivial differences to make this division. Disability is a real difference, and it is not trivial.

    If we want to help people who need help, we necessarily must make a choice of who to help. This divides people into two groups, those who need help and those who do not. Many people will view this division as "us" and "them".

    I think that anytime "the disabled" are distinguished from "the able", this will do some amount of harm. It will always trigger our natural inclination to identify "us" and "them". It will also trigger our natural judgment facility, and we will think that it is much better to be able than to be disabled. Even if we think we know better, these thoughts are inevitable, even if they remain unconscious.

    Another problem with "disabled" is that it contains too little information. People of all levels of disability are grouped together. It groups people who can do nothing for themselves with people who cannot open a pickle jar. That would be laughable if it were not so harmful.

    If there is any solution to this, I think it is the attitude that everyone needs help. Or perhaps, that we all need to cooperate with each other. A person that looks for any form of help is, in a sense, disabled. He is not able to fulfill his desires without some cooperation from others. Even a hug requires cooperation. It is a simple fact that we all need the cooperation of others to fulfill our desires. How to apply this attitude with respect to our institutions is a tough task.

    In daily life, many people already have this attitude. I have witnessed a person in a wheel chair hold a door open for someone who had their hands full of packages. We are all on a spectrum from least fortunate to most fortunate. Your place on that spectrum is largely due to luck, and it can change in a moment.
  • Dec 2 2012: I think the fact of feeling marginalised as a disbaled person depend on each individual. Some people, with disabilities, are very strong, they kind of ignore their disabilitiy and make the most of their lives without focusing on their physical problems, while others feel negative, see life in black and see those "good intentions" as an offense towards them. Plus, society can have either a bad or a good impact on disabled people depending on the way it treats them. For instance, i'm from a developing country, and i can understand why some might feel marginalised, and they have to right to feel so, life is not easy for them, means of transportation are made for "healthy people"only, only stairs in some places, high pavements..and in parkings, you may find some places reserved for dispabled people that are usually close to the entrance, well those places are occupied by non disabled people! so how can they lead a normal and an easy life? i've been to different eurpean countries, and disapbled people there should feel lucky to have all these easy accesses wherever they go, they should not even care wether intentions are bad or good.
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      Dec 3 2012: I think you raise some interesting points, Estrella. I've always been of the mind that my own disability is not all that relevant, however physically severe it may be. I don't consider that it makes me, as far as personal identity is concerned, all that different from anyone else—or, at least, certainly no more different than one able-bodied person is to another.

      That said, I think it is important to understand that marginalisation in the sense that I am talking about is not primarily concerned with how the individual himself/herself feels, but more about how society as a whole reacts to "disability" and the very real effects that this produces. Yes, on the surface it may seem that people with disabilities in European countries are comparatively lucky (this, of course can be applied across the board: "poverty" in the UK is, very clearly, quite different to poverty in, say, Africa—and this is indeed something that should be acknowledged and appreciated), but real problems do still exist, problems that have a very obvious and undeniable impact on lives. Ease of access is a right that has only been achieved in my lifetime, and it is indeed an accomplishment. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to think that this is some kind of social panacea for people with disabilities. For example, what good is ease of access to, say, public transport if you feel that you might be abused in ON the public transport? This still happens today in the UK, and it is one of the many reasons this particular question interests me.

      Caring about intentions is, to me, fundamental to development. If we are to shape decent, caring and fair societies, it isn't good enough, I'm afraid, to resort to the "they should feel lucky" response. Such phrases have been used too many times in an attempt to "keep people in their places".