Disability is not an illness

Dr Christine Peta Disability Issues —
MODELS of disability are frameworks that help us to understand the ways in which society reacts to disability and to analyse if such responses are appropriate or not.

The three models of disability that have received most attention in the field of disability thus far are the medical model, the religious model and the social model of disability.

In this article, I focus on the medical model and the social model of disability; I will discuss the religious model of disability in a separate article in future.

Medical model
The medical model of disability regards disabled people as sick, passive people who – all they ever need – is to be fixed by health care professionals.

In other words, they are viewed as ‘patients’ who should continuously be acted upon by a vast ‘army’ of competent medical doctors, alongside a skewed belief that they cannot take charge of their own lives.

Thus, according to the medical model of disability, a person with an impairment could be asked to give up control of his or her own life, thereby handing that control over to medical professionals, who are expected to treat the impairment (Winter, 2003).

Disabled people may therefore be constantly told how to live their own lives; how they should dress, what they should eat, that they should not fall in love and that they should not marry or that they should not have children.

The irony of the matter is that such issues may in some instances have nothing to do with the nature of the person’s impairment (Harris & Enfield, 2003).

The medical model has come under criticism, for calling upon disabled people to assume the ‘sick role’ in ways that are similar to for example, what a person who has measles would do (Winter, 2003).

The entire life of a person with disability may be put on hold, while the family tries to secure the medical expertise which returns the person’s body to a more ‘normal’ level of performance (Harris & Enfield, 2003)

In illustrating the shortcomings of the medical model of disability, one physically disabled person in Zimbabwe said: “When our relatives visit our house even during the day, the first thing they say to my children is prepare for him to go to sleep. They think I am sick because I am in a wheelchair, but the truth is I have not visited a doctor in three years, meaning that I am not sick.”

That is not to say that disabled people do not need medical attention, but it is to say that the impact of disability on one’s body does not necessarily need continuous medical attention; the point is to assist people with disabilities to manage their own lives.

A disabled person is not a patient with endless medical needs; he or she has a wide range of needs that go beyond medical care.

A woman in Kosovo, who has one leg which is shorter than the other by three centimetres regretted the time and money she wasted in trying to bring one of her legs to be the same size as the other leg.

She went through many unsuccessful surgeries, but she felt so relieved when she finally realised that having legs of the same size was less important than what she could achieve in her own life.

She decided to get on with her life and in spite of having legs of different lengths; she became a prominent hairdresser/beautician, who drew bridesmaids from faraway places for make-up service for weddings (Harris & Enfield, 2003).

Social model
In recent years, the disability movement shifted its focus from the medical model of disability to the social model of disability, thereby bringing a fresh understanding of disability to the scene, and one which argues that disability is not inability.

The focus of the social model of disability is on the way in which society organises itself in ways that exclude disabled people. According to Harris and Enfield (2003), the social model illuminates three barriers that hinder disabled people from living a ‘normal’ life.

Firstly, physical barriers that include the lack of appropriate access into buildings (no ramps or lifts to provide access for the disabled).

Secondly, institutional barriers that do not make it easy for disabled people to participate in various institutions such as educational, religious and legal institutions.

Thirdly, attitudinal barriers that include negative attitudes of non-disabled people towards people with disabilities (disabled people are stupid and incompetent, unable to care for themselves).

In short, people with impairments are disabled by a society that is geared to the needs of those who can walk, those who have perfect sight and perfect hearing, and those who can speak clearly, and are intelligent (Brisenden 1998).

The disability movement has argued that the removal of such barriers will result in positive individual and societal change which benefits not only disabled people but societies as well (Harris & Enfield 2003, Winter 2003).

However, it is critical to note that the adoption of the social model of disability does not mean that people with disabilities do not require medical and rehabilitation information and services, but it just changes the way disability is viewed.

It simply means that disability is not narrowly assigned to the health sector alone, but it is placed in a wider framework which takes a holistic view of the lives of persons with disabilities.

The point is that although disabled people may have some needs that are associated with disability, their needs are generally similar to those of non-disabled people.

It is therefore the responsibility of an entire society to create an environment which does not exclude disabled people from all aspects of life. We may not be able to give a blind person sight, but it is our duty to organise society in such a way that a blind person may be able to do what he or she wants (Harris & Enfield 2003).

The problem of disability is therefore not wholly in the body of the disabled person, but it is mainly within the society in which the person with disability lives.

If we view disability through the lens of the social model, we realise that any solutions to problems that are brought about by disability should come from families, communities and societies and not only from changes that should be made to the body of the person with disability as advocated for by the medical model of disability (Harris & Enfield 2003).

The focus of the social model of disability is on enabling people with disabilities to do things for themselves (independent living); thereby controlling their own lives without being made to feel like permanent patients who need everlasting medical care.

Way forward
Whilst it is true that people with disabilities are the ones who are experts of their own experiences, and they are the ones who are better placed to understand how society is organized or should be organised to include the needs of disabled people, non-disabled people should also share such responsibility.

As allies, the duty of non-disabled people is to partner with disabled people, in facilitating change across all aspects of life, thereby seeking to rid society of ways of living that exclude people with disabilities.

There is need for non-disabled people to cultivate a positive attitude towards people with disabilities and to ensure they are fully included in all aspects of life. What we are doing by excluding disabled people from participation in mainstream society? We are simply disabling them.

 Dr Christine Peta is a public healthcare practitioner who, among other qualifications, holds a PhD in Disability Studies. Be part of the international debate on how best to nurture a society which is more accessible, supportive and inclusive of disabled people. Partner with Disability Centre for Africa (DCFA): WhatsApp +263773699229, Website www.dcfafrica.com and e-mail [email protected]

 

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