Sunday 9 October 2011

Disability: the bald truth

A few weeks ago, I thought I saw a squirrel running along the top of my front garden hedge. Turned out it was a bloke on the other side of the hedge with a really bad toupee. Truth.

Bad toupee                       Squirrel

But it reminded me of  a case about three years ago, when a Scottish teacher tried (and failed) to establish that being bald meant he was disabled. He'd been the victim of terrible harrassment from his pupils: if his baldness was a disability, he would have the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act to support his claim of constructive and unfair dismissal.

The judge in that case said that just because the teacher's baldness was used by others to taunt and harrass him did not make it a disability:
It seems to me it would be to take the definition of impairment too far. If baldness was to be regarded as an impairment then perhaps a physical feature such as a big nose, big ears or being smaller than average height might of themselves be regarded as an impairment under the DDA. That, to me, cannot be right
So what is a disability? The judge seems from that quote to use the words impairment and disability interchangeably. But are they?

The medical model of disability sees impairment and disability as closely linked: disability arises directly from impairment, which is a physical dysfunction of the body. Disability is therefore clearly the individual's "fault", may reduce their quality of life, and causes clear disadvantage to them.

In the social model of disability, by contrast, society is the main factor in disabling people. Impairment is a necessary factor for disability, but it doesn't lead to disability unless society fails to take regard of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

The legal situation in the UK is governed by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (now consolidated into the Equality Act 2010). It uses predominantly a medical model: disabled people are defined as people with certain conditions (someone diagnosed with MS, for instance, is automatically covered under the Act), or with certain limitations on their abilities.

But when it's placing requirements on employers and service providers, it uses the social model, requiring them to make "reasonable adjustments" to their premises, policies and practices to make them accessible.

What make an adjustment "reasonable" is not defined, and most court cases focus on this point. It could, for instance, be entirely reasonable for a large department store to install an entrance ramp in view of the shop's size and number of shoppers; it might not be reasonable to expect an office with only a few staff, rarely visited by members of the public, to do the same. On the other hand, someone from the office could perhaps go to visit a customer who can't access the premises at home. It's about...well, what's reasonable.

Some people are very militant about the issue, insisting that only the social model should be used. But really, you could have the most accessible environment, the most enabling society in the world, and I still couldn't take a full part in it because of my fatigue and pain - the main symptoms of my MS, for me. These are called impairment effects: they're not recognised by everyone working in the field of Disability Studies, but for those of us experiencing invisible symptoms, they are a major factor in our experience of disability.

So, what is disability? To me, it's a mixture of the dysfunctions of my body caused by lesions in my brain, and society's response (or lack of response) to me as a result of those dysfunctions. Others may have different answers, depending on their own particular experiences and understandings.

Perhaps, in the end, disability is one of those things that means something different to every one of us. But a bad toupee? That'll always be a bad toupee!


  1. Hi I listed you on my aka @standup4MS's Blog Roll

  2. Thank you for articulating that so well. Where I love the social model it's not perfect (for me at any rate) and I find myself wanting to push for a model that encompasses both the social (instiutional disablism) and medical impairments.

  3. Thank-you.. I too suffer from the debilitating fatigue and parasthesias MS brings.
    In 2003 I asked my employer of 10 yr s if I could go part-time as I was struggling. A home visit from my boss and union rep about 2 weeks later gave the the sack based on 'capability' I had to prove that I was covered under the disability discrimination act which cost me £4000 at that time MS was not covered.
    I hope that has changed.
    I have since learned from the same boss that it was deemed (by his boss) more costly to keep me on than to take the risk of a tribunal and its costs.
    Now my daily battle is guilt, guilt that I don't look disabled and therefore am judged every day. I even judge myself for perhaps not trying hard enough, which is really unfounded as I know I'm the sort of person who battles hard every day.
    I hope with all my heart that blogs and social networking help change the attitude that anyone who looks ok is blagging.
    I agree both the social model and the medical model need to be more cohesive.
    As for baldness REALLY?

  4. In fairness, the way the DDA handles MS specifically is very Social Model. It recognises that merely being diagnosed with a certain condition can lead to problematic social treatment, even if there was no functional impairment at all. Of course generally, people diagnosed with MS are going to have *some* impairment in order to have noticed, but someone diagnosed with HIV (another specifically named condition) may be in apparently perfect health whilst still experiencing discrimination based on a blood test. I hope Chocolatewig's experience would be very different today.

    To me, I have two problems. I have impairments (ow, eek, ugh, agh) and I am disabled. If the world was a perfectly accessible, fair and egalitarian place, then I wouldn't be disabled, but like you, I'd still have a lot on my plate. However, how we approach these two problems is totally different. One involves medical science, the other involves revolution.

    Thus people like us need to obey doctor's orders (to some extent at least) and write complaining letters about the steps at the town hall so that one day we might be able to roll in and take over. Some disabled people - people without pain, fatigue, depression etc - only really need to write the letters.