The slowly shifting social norms of disability in Britain, 2009 - Today

April 1, 2019

It was 10 years ago to the year, in 2009, when the UK government threw its weight behind the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The ratification of the convention was met with thunderous applause in the disabled community, and was seen as the beginning of the end of outdated notions towards disability.

The UNCRPD marked a seismic shift in attitudes towards the disabled – at least on paper. The crux of the Convention was the re-focusing of disabled attitudes away from what is known as the “medical” view, to a more progressive social model.

The progressive social model is a way of looking at how we can change the structures in society so that a person with a disability can participate in full. It suggests that this is the main obstacle in the way for some disabled people – who feel they are not getting involved in modern life as much as they could be. The medical model focuses on the disability itself as the main barrier to full participation in society. Critics of the medical model argue that it is an antiquated viewpoint that only stigmatizes the disabled.

What made the UNCRPD so forceful in 2009 were its challenges to existing societal dogma. The new social model forced the government to rethink its entrenched views of the structures of society and of the human body. Most importantly, it forced the government to consider disabled people according to their equal dignity, as opposed to what they may be lacking.  

A decade on, it seems those celebrations were slightly premature – the UK’s disabled population has endured significant turbulence since then. Notably the most damning was a report by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2017, which highlighted the “human tragedy” that austerity and social cuts were having on the disabled community. The opinion is that the UK – despite ratification of the Convention – still looks at its disabled population through the “medical-only” lens. 

Furthermore, the UK government failed to make the Convention a part of UK law, so the UK courts could not enforce it. 
Progress is about looking forward, proactively, for the disabled community.

But there have been some positives since the UNCRPD was ratified, even if they have been over-shadowed. Including the Scottish national plan of action on disability rights, something which was launched in 2016, the 2016 Accessible Travel Framework in Scotland, and the Social Services and Well-being Act passed in 2014 in Wales. All of these initiatives were passed with the blessing and involvement of disabled people’s organizations.

So what does all of this tell us about Britain’s attitudes towards the disabled community in a decade? It tells us that, like much of human history, there’s a big difference between gesturing and real-world application. The UNCRPD was a start. It was something. But it was never going to change everything overnight. Instead, like a germinating seed, the idea of the progressive social model is growing in the public consciousness. Like all revolutionary conventions, such as those on human rights and civil rights for example, it rises like a slow tide, eventually becoming a tsunami of change. 

It is my belief that we are at the tipping point, after a slow start. Here’s for a positive and proactive future for the disabled people of Britain.

This article was written by Jack Derbyshire of Webster Wheelchairs, a major supplier of wheelchairs for sale across the United Kingdom. 


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