Independent Living Movement Ireland

Why is this poster medical model?

See the person not the disability - ILMI

As an ancient saying – attributed to the English thinker Sir Francis Bacon, the key figure in engineering the creation of the British state 400 years ago – bluntly puts it: “knowledge is power”. In this first of a series on disability and language, ILMI’s Peter Kearns will set-out an argument that as social model inspired activists we must challenge the use of medical model language everywhere we encounter such a barrier. This includes taking to task disabled people and non-disabled who like to spout the so-called politically correct terminology of ‘people with disabilities’ (PwD). Such medical model language continues to remove us from effective engagement with Irish ‘power’ systems and the writing-up of social and legislative policy.

It is now widely appreciated that Disabled Peoples Orgs (DPOs), such as our national cross-impairment ILMI, have a role to play in spreading knowledge of disability equality which aims to impact and influence ‘power’ with mainstream organisations, sectors and agencies, beyond the PwD disability specific arena. Since the creation of ILMI in 201 DPOs have gained in confidence towards using the strong clear language of the social model to make sure that everyday mainstream services such as county councils, ETB or HSE are using such language when engaging with disabled people in every ROI county.  The ‘Politics’ of writing social model language into mainstream social agencies and their policy is about two things: social organisation and power. Disability Equality ILMI activists cannot get away with ignoring medical model language like ‘people with Disabilities’ when engaging mainstream organisations, even if we want to…..

Disabled Activists, such as the members and staff of ILMI, use the term ‘impairment’ to talk about their medical condition or diagnosis or description of their functioning. We also use the term ‘perceived-impairments’, which identifies that impairment ‘labels’ constantly change meaning according to the medical fad of the day. Activists appreciate that impairment labels are like the celtic goddess of war & fate Mórrígan. Impairment names are label shape-shifters, usually dictated by the medical and health community, and can be just names for a list of medical model led subjective health-deviant language such as bodily appearances. The shape-shifting impairment label language can overshadow the individual. By its nature, impairment label language can’t recognise the strong impact of a disabled person’s class, gender, ethnic background, etc. on their lifecourse (birth to death) lived experiences.

On the other hand, the social model confident use of the term ‘disability’ describes the social barriers and restrictions effects of living with a medical model shape-shifting impairment label. ‘Disability’ is not a description of a personal health-deviant characteristic or a personal tragedy. Being ‘disabled’ by Society doesn’t overshadow a person’s ethnicity, class or gender, all of which may be more important for an individual. A disabled person is not a ‘person with an Impairment’ as the person does not own the disabling restrictions in the way that you might be ‘a person with ginger hair’. Consequently, the opposite of ‘disabled person’ is not ‘able-bodied’, but ‘non-disabled person’.

Understanding the critical difference between the two terms ‘disabled person’ and ‘PwD’ allows us to talk separately and clearly about: 

  • a named individual = the person 
  • impairment = their ‘expert’ understanding of how their body functions
  • disability = society’s barriers and obsession with the personal-tragedy story and non-disabled professional perceived health-deviancy ‘cure’.

An example of applying social model thinking and language in an Irish context could be as follows. Caitlin O’Grady (the person) is a Leitrim village shop worker with the impairment label of cerebral palsy (the impairment). When the barriers and discrimination (the disabilities) that restrict Caitlin have been removed from society, even the idea that disability is somehow her personal-tragedy, Caitlin will no longer be disabled, but she will still have her own expert lived experience of the label cerebral palsy and be called Caitlin, who is a woman who works in her village…and not a ‘poor-girl’ needing a trip to Lourdes or a ‘special’ group. Therefore, when activists use or promote the term “Disability’ it is used to identify knowledge that recognises the disadvantage or restriction created and facilitated by the ‘power’ of Society and its systems, and oppressing non-disabled personal. 

Unfortunately, too many non-disabled disability-sector staff, health workers and social workers still insist on using the medical model ‘PwD’, rather than appropriate social model terminology of disabled people. Political correctness around disability terminology can simply confuse issues, by advocating terms such as physically challenged, visually challenged, mentally challenged, etc. Such expressions detract from the real issue: who is being challenged here and who is being oppressed? Disabled people have no problem with their difference – it can be good craic, but we do feel challenged by other people’s lack of tolerance and by the barriers that make it harder for us to participate. 

In terms of promoting our lived experience ‘knowledge’ we need to clearly say that the term ‘people with disabilities’ is inappropriate and quite obviously, medical model too. So, although disabled people have impairments, we are disabled by outside forces that oppress us daily, including shape-shifting ‘labels’ imposed on us. The term ‘disabled person’ has become positive and empowering, as it denotes the recognition of oppression and affiliation to a movement, such as a DPO. Used as a verb – I am disabled by attitudes; she is disabled by systems, he faces disabling structures – it recognises disability as a social oppression – something external to the person. Significantly, it also acknowledges that ‘disability’ can be changed and transformed by collective activists in social model led DPOs.

In the next E-Bulletin, Peter will explore how we use the phrase ‘Lived Experience of Disability’ and can we own it as a social model activist term to enable our knowledge to be ‘power’.

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