The Simon Heng column

Although I am a firm believer in the social model of disability
– the notion that people are disabled by societal attitudes rather
than their medical diagnoses – I have always thought it had its
limitations, just as I do, as an individual. No amount of effort by
other people, either singly or collectively, will change my
physical condition. I will never kick a ball again, dance or swim
with wild dolphins.

But my view of the social model has changed dramatically after
reading a disabled woman’s weblog, the Gimp Parade. She describes
herself as disabled, “over-educated and under-employed” and uses
her weblog to discuss art and disability issues. One of the entries
deals with a French TV advert, where able-bodied people find
themselves in built environments designed for people with
disabilities – for example, a library where all the books are in
Braille, asking for information in an office where everyone
communicates in sign-language, or trying to make a call from a
phone set at wheelchair height.

It’s a sophisticated attempt at describing the disabled experience
of social exclusion through inaccessibility. The Gimp argues that
the built environment follows an ableist paradigm, with
accessibility seen as something extra, rather than part of the
design. Take lighting: if buildings were designed just for blind
people, then there would be no need for windows or lights; anybody
who wanted to see in this environment would be asking for something
extra. The point is that consideration of accessibility for all is
about the design paradigm.

At present, accessibility is signposted. But having places where
disabled people are allowed is inadvertent segregation, which is
dangerous and avoidable. Disabled people need to be included
everywhere, not just where convenient. If we adopted a different
conception, we would only signpost the inaccessible. Blue
wheelchair symbols would indicate areas unsuitable for wheelchairs;
occluded ear signs would mean no induction loop was available.

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