In the light of the Coalition cuts and welfare reform, Disability and Social Change: Private Lives and Public Policies, a new book from Dr Sonali Shah and Professor Mark Priestley from Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds asks the topical question: How much influence does public policy have on the lives of disabled people?
The answer isn’t quite as simple as one might imagine.
When we look at the changing policy in Britain from the 1940s to the present day, it would seem that the last 70 years have been an era of steady improvement for disabled people’s rights. These gains now seem under threat, see the news.
Although disabled people’s rights on paper have undoubtedly improved, individuals’ chances in life have not always reflected this as some of the life stories in the book show.
Social inclusion and total institution
In the 1940s, your life chances as a disabled person were often between “uneasy social inclusion” (where disabled people and their families often had to negotiate a very hostile environment without help) and “total institution” (which left disabled people isolated and often at the mercy of the prevailing medical orthodoxy of the time).
Ironically, this very segregation of disabled people helped to mould a sense of disabled identity and sow the seeds for disability activism.
Although the authors are keen that the anecdotal does not obscure the big policy picture, some of the anecdotes are the most powerful demonstrations of how disabled people can subvert the existing social structure:
“I can remember going to see the careers advisor at school when I was 15, 16 years old and he would turn to me and said, ‘Well, what do you want to do? I was like, ‘I want to be a dancer’. That just completely and utterly threw him and he said, But you have a disability.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I know. I want to be a dancer.’”
“Well the perfect example when I was of further education college and I can remember coming out of the lecture at break time, seeing my old head teacher, diving down the corridor to avoid him but failing miserably. And he caught me up and said ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I'm a student’ and his exact words were ‘I never thought one of my pupils would be clever enough to do A-levels.’ That summed up the entire ethos of the school. There was no motivation.”
My one regret about this book is that the disabled people whose life stories are veiled behind pseudonyms. Although this may have been some interviewees’ choice, it takes away some of the detail that would've helped ground the stories in the reality of the public policy context.
Despite this small quibble, this is a valuable and timely book, which is very readable and has much thought-provoking material. As the authors say, “This is one of the reasons why disability histories, including oral histories and social histories, are so important. They can help to provide some of the missing links in the intergenerational inheritance of disability culture.”