To be disabled in Ireland is quite political.

Catherine Gallagher

You are assessed, spoken about, and decisions are made for you, largely by non-disabled people who you may never meet.

To say I am disabled is political, too. I am disabled by legislation, policy, attitudes, outdated perspectives, buildings, lack of planning, poor communication, and even government departments who don’t speak enough to each other. All of those things are not related to my conditions and diagnoses. The Social Model of Disability is at the heart of this perspective. This model, first developed by disabled people in the 1960s and 1970s, states that for people who have impairments, the oppression and exclusion they face is not an inevitable consequence of having an impairment, but is caused by the way that society is run and organised. 

Opposing this approach, are the Medical and Charitable models of Disability. The former will focus on an individual’s condition(s) as something that needs to be prevented, cured or contained. The Charitable model views disabled people as a group to be pitied and catered for by segregated, charitable services. Both of these models align with what a lot of disabled people consider to be harmful language, such as describing someone as ‘wheelchair bound’ rather than ‘wheelchair user’.

The Social Model is the only approach out of these that holds a human-rights lens. Unfortunately, in Ireland, we have a legacy of treating and speaking about disabled people that align with medical and charitable perspectives. 

A lot of people talk about disability and work in the so-called ‘disability sector’, there’s lots of skin in the game in terms of funding. Disabled people – for the most part – do not benefit from the money that circulates.

It is a question of the status quo, power and influence of long-standing organisations and actors that still do not see the benefit of fully committing to the Independent Living movement principles and incorporating the Social Model into the fabric of everything they do.

If we had meaningful representation and political engagement all year round and viewed disabled people as contributors to society, what would we see? We would acknowledge the hurt that the current framing is causing. We would see more people being able to live ordinary lives with discretion and privacy. We would pave the way for Disbled Persons Organisations to be the main contributors to policy change and reform. We would understand that disability is not a dirty word. 

Catherine Gallagher