Disability isn't just a cultural difference

Submitted by AWL on 28 June, 2002 - 10:55

Solidarity 3/8 contained an article by Lynne Moffat: Dignity in Life as well as death, which commented on the case of Diane Pretty and argued that as well defending her right to choose the time of her death, socialists need to look at their own prejudices about disabled people anbd the idea that society views the existence of disabled people as a 'shame'.
This letter is a response to that view
I agree with much of what Lynne Moffat wrote about disability in the last issue of Solidarity. Disabled people should not be patronised, talked down to or be seen as being defined as a human being by their disability. The left should fight with disabled people for their rights to a decent life and to be treated as full and equal members of society.

Where I disagree is with what Lynne has to say about the nature of disability itself. I think it is wrong to see disability as a "natural and positive difference that exists within our society" or to imply that it can be seen as just a "cultural difference". If the word has any real meaning (and it obviously does), disability refers to the absence or loss of some characteristic human capacity or property - whether it is mobility, sight, hearing, cognitive faculties etc. Being positive about disabled people does not require us to pretend otherwise.

What does the word "natural" mean? If all Lynne means is that disability can be the product of normal biological processes and that it is not something alien to what we are as humans, I agree. However, she seems to imply that we should also accept disability as something positive in itself.

Leaving aside the fact that many disabilities are the result of human activity (e.g. war, accidents, use of unsafe drugs like thalidomide) rather than "natural", medicine has the - not total - power to remove the causes of disability and technology can redefine the effects of particular disabilities so that they are literally less disabling. I can remember as a boy that polio was considered a dangerous disabling disease. Today it has virtuallly been eradicated. Should we see this as the eradication of a "positive difference"?

Lynne accepted Diane Pretty's negative view of her disabilities. To give another example - I suffer from a mild, only slightly disabling, form of multiple sclerosis. I have seen others with the quickly progressive form of the illness decline to the point where they have lost almost all control of their limbs, speech and other faculties controlled by the nervous system. I cannot believe that they would not prefer to return to their previous able state. Rather than accepting disability, there is much anger amongst MS sufferers because the Government will not pay for unlimited use of potentially helpful drugs because they cost too much.

Lynne asks: "Why was there all the uproar when the lesbian couple chose to have a deaf baby? Many people view being deaf as a cultural difference, not a disability." This case crystallises the problems with Lynne's view of disability. Personally, I found this case
shocking and it made me angry.

Firstly, there is the eugenic "designer baby" aspect to the use of donor insemination to ensure that a baby has certain characteristics deemed desirable by its parents. Would Lynne react in the same way to parents who use similar techniques to ensure that they had a boy rather than a girl (not unlikely in many parts of the world)?

Secondly, the genetic element they are passing on is one that, if you accept my definition of disability, deprives the child of self-determination and excludes her - by her parents' edict - from certain human activities. Consequences of profound deafness include difficulties with communication with non-deaf people and an inability to enjoy music. How would Lynne feel about the non-deaf parents of a non-deaf child who consciously sought to restrict their child's ability to communicate or prevented them from ever hearing music? Did Lynne react as positively to the Taliban's attempt to ban music from Afghan society - also ascribable to "cultural difference"? It is true that deaf people have developed their own culture and language. There are differences amongst deaf people on whether to be "separatists" or be "integrationists" with hearing society. This does not change the nature of deafness as a disability.

To sum up, it is important to distinguish between having a positive attitude towards disabled people and seeing disability itself as something positive in itself. Perhaps there's a danger of overgeneralising when it comes to how individuals should react to disability. But it seems to me that there is nothing to be gained for disabled people from pretending that disabilities are not in a literal sense dis-abling.

Bruce Robinson, Manchester

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