Discriminatory action against the physically or cognitively less able in some form or other has been an integral part of almost every society throughout history. And although it is undoubtedly true that the more extreme forms of negative discrimination which were synonymous with earlier epochs, such as violent persecution and infanticide have largely disappeared, the fact remains that the quality of life experienced by the majority of handicapped people in modern society is considerably lower than that enjoyed by their able-bodied contemporaries. Moreover, it appears that as our society becomes ever more socially and technologically complex the numbers of people perceived as disabled is steadily increasing. Indeed one writer has estimated that there are over nine million handicapped people living in the British Isles (see chapter one) and there is little evidence to suggest that these figures are likely to decline in the foreseeable future.
Now the fact that the general standard of living experienced by this increasingly large section of the community is consistently lower than that of the majority indicates that the discrimination against the disabled in modern society is still a reality, and although the social effects of this phenomenon are less obvious than those associated with earlier more violent times they are none the less debilitating for those concerned. This essay is an attempt to understand the causes and effects of discrimination against disabled people. Generally speaking, apart from the work of Erving Goffman and Fred Davis, relatively little has been written on the subject of disability within Sociology. While their work has highlighted the complexity of the process of social interaction between the handicapped and the able-bodied, both authors have been content to place the subject of disability alongside deviance and minority group membership as a social phenomenon. This I feel is a mistake - apart from the fact that deviance and deviant behaviour, and to some degree, minority group membership are generally associated with some elements of choice, freedom of action and morality, the same cannot be said of the disabled. They are as they are through no fault of their own and given the option most would welcome the opportunity to return to normality - certainly in terms of mental or physical limitations at least, the same cannot be said of many forms of deviance. Further, this tendency to position disability with other minority groups has allowed the several unique features of this most fundamental - albeit unrecognised - of social phenomenon to be overlooked as hopefully this essay will demonstrate. With reference to the opening quotation my own interest in this subject can be explained with some trepidation on my part by the fact that I was born with a hereditary eye disease which meant that I was educated as special schools for the deaf and blind until the age of eleven and had it not been for the remarkable, pardon the pun, far-sightedness of my parents would have remained there until the school leaving age - then fifteen. This would have meant that I would have ended up in a 'sheltered' workshop for the handicapped or permanently unemployed as most of my primary school peers apparently did. After a careful reading of much current sociology it became evident that very little work had been done in this area. Therefore it seemed natural that I should look to the experience of disability as a subject for analysis. I must emphasize at this juncture that I have much sympathy with the view of Peter Townsend in 'Sociology and Social Policy 1975' who has argued that in many instances the separation of sociology from social policy is quite illegitimate - disability it would appear is just such an instance. Throughout this analysis I have tried to remain within the boundaries of sociology although I have drawn heavily upon material from other disciplines particularly social policy. Moreover I believe it is quite legitimate for the sociologist to draw upon material from other 'sciences' in order to prove his case and this is what I have tried to do. The following dissertation then is divided into four distinct sections, plus of course a conclusion. Indeed for most it is essential - simply because in order to ensure the welfare benefits available - often their only source of income - they are forced to accept the stigmatizing mantle of 'disabled person'. Moreover, although this chapter briefly discusses the numerous attempts at definition which have been used in the past and even adopts a broad description for the purposes of this analysis, I am not attempting to define disability. This chapter should be seen as a ground clearing exercise simply due to the fact that many concepts need to be clarified if the problems associated with society's attitude toward the handicapped are to be fully understood. The second part of the essay is concerned with the strategies of exclusion which our society has adopted toward the physically and mentally impaired throughout history. This chapter illustrates how the open hostility and persecution which characterized earlier less socially and technologically diverse societies slowly gave way to what can only be described as the less predictable ambivalence associated with the modern welfare state.
Disability has many dimensions - medical, economic, legal and bureaucratic. In fact one of the most significant features of handicap, both physical and mental, and the problems it creates both for the individual and society, is its sheer diversity. Differences in causation alone are indeed many while the degree of dissimilarity between impairment, severity and prognosis are often quite extreme. It could be argued that the experience of handicap is no respecter of class, age, sex or ethnicity. Although undoubtedly different social classes are exposed to different causes of impairment. For example, the upper classes are less likely to suffer disabilities associated with heavy industrial work such as coal mining than are the working class. Equally ethnic minorities are often subject to racial discrimination and economic deprivation and may have a higher instance of diseases associated with poverty such as rickets than other social groups. But generally it would be true to suggest that disability can strike anyone, regardless of his or her social rank or status. To move from impairment to handicap is to cover the ground between symptom and social role. disability handicap. Two people with similar functional limitations often react to the circumstances in which they find themselves completely differently. Here variations in resources both personal and communal are extremely important. In Britain quantitative analysis of the handicapped to date has provided relatively adhoc and inconclusive. The first attempt at such an enterprise occurred in the census of 1851 which posed questions concerning the deaf and blind. However the British people were medically examined for the first time ‘en masse’ in 1917 for military service. It was concluded that 10% of the total male population were unfit for military service, 41.5% (in London 48-49%) had marked disabilities, 22% had ‘partial’ disabilities, while only a third were considered to be in satisfactory shape. It is important to note that the author who reported these findings does not give any details of criteria used in the examinations.
To pinpoint precisely the root causes of our attitudes toward the disabled would, I believe, be almost impossible. One author goes so far as to suggest that our primitive ancestors lived in such an extremely harsh hostile environment, which placed such a high emphasis upon the basic techniques of survival, that there could be no margin for the provision for those unfortunate members of society who were unable to take care of themselves, such as the weak, the sick and the disabled. With the advent of basically stable communities which were able to produce a limited economic surplus, due principally to the evolution of some form of agriculture, the possibilities of survival for the physically and mentally incapacitated became more feasible although social acceptance was much more difficult. As a result these unfortunate infants were quietly returned to what was thought of to be their natural relatives - the hippopotamuses and their natural habitat - the river. Another example of a similar culture’s response to such apparent anomalies is illustrated by Mary Douglas’ description of a West African community which believed two humans cannot be conceived in the same womb at the same time. Therefore twins were mercilessly murdered at birth
As the previous discussion has clearly shown, to be disabled is to be discriminated against. As a result to become disabled is to acquire a new identity. To be born with a handicapping condition is to have this new identity assigned the instant the condition is detected and diagnosed. A world in which the rich tapestries of sound are nothing more than a cherished memory or an incomprehensible experience seemingly taken for granted by the rest of society, where conversation is restricted to the constraints of sign language - a language which despite its immense scope is generally only understood by the deaf themselves; where communication with the rest of society largely depends upon mastery of the difficult techniques of lip reading - a method of communication with obvious limitations. How can anyone blessed with the gift of sight contemplate the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in complete darkness. How are we to empathise with someone who can never be free of a dependence upon others for the simplest of tasks. For the blind it is a reality which can stimulate a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from resentment and isolation to complete apathy and total dependence. Can the experience of disability be any the less devastating for the thousands of unfortunate individuals who are crippled and maimed in our factories and on our roads each year? How can anyone who is lucky enough to have good health ever understand what it feels like to be told they have contracted a debilitating degenerative disease such as Multiple Sclerosis? The realization that one has been relegated to the ranks of the sub-normal - the handicapped, invokes a number of reactions both from the disabled themselves as well as the rest of society. Some writers have suggested that the psychological adjustment to the realization one is disabled can be perceived as a series of psychological stages which have to be worked through. This concept is particularly pertinent to the newly afflicted due to accident or the onset of a crippling disease, but may also be applicable to children who may not realize they are disabled until they come into contact with normality, say after leaving home or special school. One author has characterized these typologies and claims they all partially assume the individual has to pass through this sequence of stages in order to be socialized. A typical example of these psychological stages which the disabled are expected to pass through is a) shock, b) denial, c) anger, d) depression. Movement is one way, each stage has an acceptable time frame and the individual can be placed at each stage by operational criteria.
My objective throughout this essay has been to bring to the attention of sociology one of the most consistent and complex features of all known human societies, namely discrimination against the physiologically and cognitively less able. The systematic separation of the handicapped from normal everyday society has meant that they and the enormous difficulties, both social and economic, which they encounter in the course of their daily lives, are generally outside the boundaries of our consciousness. To a large extent this also applies to many sociologists. They too have tended to overlook the handicapped members of society, both as individual social actors and as a social group. This in my view is a fundamental mistake. As this essay has shown, the majority of the problems associated with physical and mental disabilities are socially constructed and as such are the legitimate subject matter of this discipline.