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Capetown Researcher: Disability Is An Issue For All of Us

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Disability World, a bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 21, November-December, 2003: http://www.disabilityworld.or

Recently, a colleague asked me why I do research in the field of disability. After all, she argued, disabled people make up only a very small percentage of the population--aren't there things we should be doing which affect more people? In asking this question, she was echoing the common view that disability is something strange that happens to other people.

My first reaction was anger. I wanted to let her know how I felt as a close family member of a disabled person when I was told that there was no need for a gym to have a disabled parking bay as, according to the gym instructor, "disabled people don't need to exercise".

I wanted her to have some sense of what it means to many people to lose their place in society because they talk or move differently from others, because they think differently, because they don't see or hear the same way as many people do, to name just a few ways in which disabled people are excluded.

It is appropriate to be angry about what we as a society do to exclude disabled people, but it is more important that we understand why we do these things.

The biggest myth about disability is that it is something that an individual "suffers from" and that it is unchanging.

The reality is that the experience of disability is the product of an interaction between the person and the environment. Two people with exactly the same impairment, for example, a mobility impairment leading to wheelchair use, and work related potential will lead completely different lives because of the situations they live in. One may be an active member of society, contributing to the economy. The other may have been excluded from mainstream education because people feel that disabled children may "upset" others, may not be able to get to work because public transport cannot accommodate a wheelchair, and may in any event not be skilled enough to find appropriate fulfilling work.

Poor people and people in rural areas are usually even more affected by their environment. For example, it is one thing for a wheelchair user to visit a toilet with a large room in a modern airport and bars to assist. It's quite another to slide along the rough ground, pulling your legs behind you, having to use a tiny shanty with a hole in the ground; a plastic box as support.

As the disability theorist Deborah Marks has pointed out, to argue that disability is just a matter of bodily impairment, is similar to arguing that the experience of racism can he explained by skin colour alone, or that gender relationships depend only on the structure of genitals.

Context is all-important. Some years ago, colleagues and I considered whether to admit blind students to clinical psychology training. Among the many arguments made against training blind psychologists--some ridiculous--was that psychologists must be able to drive a car so that they can get to their clients.

Other arguments were more subtle, for example, we had to consider the fact that much of the psychological assessment depends on observations of the client's behavior. What, though, is the essence of what a psychologist does in an assessment situation?

The key skill is not in being able to see things but in being able to interpret and understand behaviour. A blind psychologist can use other channels of assessment, for example, auditory and tactile, and can work with someone who will administer visual-based tests so that the psychologist can make the appropriate professional judgments.

One of my most valued colleagues now is a blind psychologist who not only can do what other psychologists do, but who also has a unique perspective to offer on the experience of disability.

Disability, centrally, is not about "them". It is about all of us, and not only about the fact that we may all move into and out of experiences of disability through illness, accidents, and changes in the environment.

More importantly, disability is about the extent to which we are prepared to make our society accessible to everyone, an environment in which everyone reaches full potential. Taking on disability is part of taking on building a democratic society which does not, apartheid-style, confine people to certain roles based on physical characteristics.

In building our democracy, we have learned the creative potential of diversity, and have seen how keeping people separate encourages mistrust and misperceptions.

We will not be much further on than we were if, instead of labelling race groups as bad, dangerous or weak, we label disabled people in the same way.

If we are serious about human rights in our society, we have to get beyond seeing disability as an issue for disabled people only. In reality, disability is an issue for us all--at the heart of all our wishes for an inclusive society for everybody.

Leslie Swartz is a Director: Child, Youth and Family Development at the Human Sciences Research Council where he heads the Disability Studies Program, and

Professor of Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch.