Monthly Archives: February 2018

A tale of two narratives and the contested representation of disabled people

It strikes me that from what I see, hear and read at the moment, that there is a very polarised contest going on in terms of how disabled people are talked about, thought about and represented.  Discussion and debate over the representation of disabled people is in and of itself nothing new.  As I was researching this blog, I found a really interesting book on how disabled people are represented in the media from the early 1990’s.  Many of those representations are still with us today.  What feels different (and I emphasise that this is a feeling rather than I something which I can empirically verify or ‘prove’ as such) is the significance of the challenges that disabled people are facing in current times, coupled with the unparalleled importance of social media channels today.

So for me there is a tale of two narratives which are diametrically opposed.  On the one hand there is a ‘contribution’ narrative, which talks about the positive impact disabled people can make through their approach to life and skills.  An example of this from a few days ago was the parliamentary discussion of the role that disabled people could make to economic growth.  The report from this discussion makes it clear that disabled people have a significant contribution to make in several different ways and is well worth a read.  A further example is a channel 4 publication on the importance of disabled talent in the media industry, which in many ways is an extended testament to the progressive approach taken by this broadcaster.

On the other hand there is the ‘burden’ based narrative, which depicts disabled people must, as Colin Barnes puts it, be ‘cared for’ together with the cost and complexity that this involves.  This can take a range of forms.  There was recent outcry over a BBC Ouch podcast which, it its headline, explicitly discussed whether having a disabled partner was a ‘burden.’  The response to this will also give us clues as to how to combat this narrative, which I will return to later.

I first want to highlight a deeply troubling aspect of this narrative though: the renaissance of the medical model.  Increasingly, it is being left to disabled people to find their own solutions to their impairments.  In an educational context, I have been disturbed at the increasingly contested state of special educational needs provision.  The denial of young disabled people of access to educational opportunity due to increasing amounts of litigation is a worrying development.  Other examples of the return of the medical model include requiring disabled people to contribute to their own social care costs and fund their own wheelchairs.

Whilst I am normally quick to call for and point to a need for nuance, I really can’t see any middle ground between these narratives.   Opposing the burden based narrative in a swift and confident fashion is important.  In the case of the BBC Ouch podcast, thankfully the range and volume of response to the characterisation of disabled people as ‘burdens’ was vast.  This resulted in the offending text being edited and an apology being made.  It could easy for the medical model to ‘creep’ its way back into our default way of thinking, so it is by challenging its expressions that this can be combatted.

The case for the ‘contribution’ based narrative should also continue to be made in an assertive way.  Even allowing for my own bias, it is clear to me that disabled people have a pivotal role to play in contemporary society in so many ways. Make no mistake though that the hard fought advances that we have seen for disabled people can be easily eroded, and constant vigilance against this is required.  Long may the contribution based narrative emerge, and we all have a role to play in ensuring the ‘burden’ based narrative is consigned to the past, never to return.

A new approach to disability activism:Some first thoughts

This is something I have been wrestling with for a while…and something I wanted to try and make a constructive contribution with. For a long time I have observed disability activism and seen some instances where it has gained more traction than others. I have also wondered about what it means to be an ‘activist’ or a ‘campaigner’ and wanted to help contribute to this debate. 

With this in mind, I outline some principles around what a new approach to disability activism could look like. I do so with some trepidation, and with the heavy caveat that these are first thoughts. I am though of the conviction that, used with a principled approach, disability activism has far greater (and more consistent) scope to have impact than it does currently.


In this section I present a very broad brush outline of the principles underpinning a new approach to disability activism. These are that activism should be goal directed, evidence based, nuanced, proportional and ideologically transparent.

 Goal directed

Activism must have a clear idea concerning its objective(s) and how the activism intends to contribute to their realisation. Being goal directed could also help in the engagement of individuals who share a similar or common objective

 Evidence based

In order to make a telling impact, what is said must be grounded in evidence, either of an empirical or experiential nature. Being evidence based will mean that findings can be discussed with authority, rather than being dismissed as being merely purely anecdotal in nature. Evidence could take the form of a quantitative, qualitative nature or a mix methods approach as each methodological approach has merits.


The term ‘disability’ encompasses a wide range of impairments and as such, any activism carried out should take this range into account. Giving due attention to nuance will help to highlight the diversity that is covered when discussing issues related to impairment and give due respect to difference.


A sense of proportionality matters in order to ensure the effort directed to addressing an issue is relative to its significance. Moreover, this sense of proportionality is intended to avoid disproportionate responses to an issue. To give an example, boycotting a manufacturer because one of its employees used a disabled parking space in an isolated occurrence would be, it is suggested, a disproportionate response to this infraction. 

Ideologically transparent

Some disability activism is informed by a clear ideological standpoint which can help inform the stance taken in relation to particular issues. In the policy making arena Barrilleaux et al (2016) have suggested that ideas should be ideologically neutral. 

Given the nature of disability activism, much of which draws from personal conviction and responses to government and social policy, the author doubts it is possible to separate the personal from the political. Being ideologically transparent though means that ideas can be discussed with the nature of an influential standpoints disclosed. 

Learning from history: Using the past as a springboard for the present

In writing these first thoughts, I do so in the knowledge that the disability rights movement has a long and rich history which is of import with the above in mind. Here there is work to do in order to identify and learn from past endeavours in order to inform and develop present efforts.

I hope these first thoughts are useful, and I would welcome thoughts on them. I intend to develop them in the near future. Good disability activism, in order to make the case for the multitude of issues that those with impairments are facing in current challenging times, is in the interest of so many.