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Blurring the line between ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’

A charity despairs at public ignorance about people with learning problems. Yet it’s the constant redefinition of disability that sows confusion.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

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The UK learning disability charity Mencap recently ran a poll asking members of the public to name three learning disabilities. Mencap was not impressed with the results. Seventy-three per cent of respondents could not name a learning disability, and only nine per cent were able to correctly name three. The most common answer was dyslexia, which was cited by 27.5 per cent of respondents. According to Mencap and many others, dyslexia is not a learning disability but a learning difficulty. The next four most common answers were ‘reading/writing problem’ (14 per cent), ‘autism’ (12 per cent), ‘hearing difficulties’ (eight per cent) and ‘blindness’ (seven per cent).

One commentator, writing in Community Care magazine, the trade journal for social care, claimed that the poll ‘exposed widespread ignorance among the public and politicians about what constitutes a learning disability’. Leroy Binns, campaigns assistant at Mencap, could not ‘understand how people can be so wrong about what a learning disability is. There are 1.5million people with a learning disability, but we appear to be invisible and unimportant to so many people.’ (1)

Some believe that this lack of knowledge will have serious implications for people with learning disabilities. According to Mike Broad, editor of Community Care magazine, ‘Where there’s ignorance, there’s neglect, exclusion and abuse’ (2). Noting the improvement in both policies and services in recent years, he states that there is still ‘little to suggest that our society is becoming any more inclusive’. The implication is clear. It is not the policymakers and professionals who are the problem, but the source of maltreatment is the ignorant general public.

In an attempt to clarify what constitutes a learning disability and to improve public awareness around this, Mencap has adopted the following definition: ‘A learning disability is caused by the way the brain develops before, during or shortly after birth. It is always lifelong. It is not mental illness or dyslexia. People with a learning disability find it harder than others to learn, understand and communicate.’ (3)

It is conditions such as Down’s Syndrome that Mencap has in mind. But unfortunately, the conceptual clarity that Mencap is striving for is not easily achieved. And this is not simply because of a ‘lack of awareness’ amongst the public. Legislators, theoreticians and disability campaign groups have all contributed to the confusion around definitions.

First, let’s start with MPs. In a similar survey to that described above, 49 per cent of MPs also cited dyslexia as a learning disability. This should come as no surprise. As legislators, MPs are also responsible for the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). The DDA defines a disability as ‘A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. Dyslexia is covered under the broad category of a disability which affects ‘memory, or ability to concentrate, learn or understand’. It would appear that the enlightenment of the masses sought by the likes of Mencap and Mike Broad will not be achieved through legal definitions.

Second, within social theory, the definition of disability has simultaneously been expanded and contested. Proponents of the social model of disability make a distinction between an individual impairment, such as loss of a limb, and disability. Difficulties associated with the former are seen as individual in nature (for example, inability to walk) and the latter are due to social restrictions (for example, lack of appropriate transport).

Some contest the very term impairment, viewing it not as something discovered by medical advances, but as constructed within a normative framework that seeks to categorise certain people or conditions as abnormal. They are the ‘Other’ to the ‘non-disabled gaze’. Many within the Deaf community (the capital D is important) do not consider themselves disabled at all, but say they are a cultural and linguistic minority. From this perspective, the medical profession’s search for a cure for deafness is tantamount to genocide.

Third, Mencap as a campaign group may specify that dyslexia is not a learning disability, but many dyslexia groups beg to differ. The National Institutes of Health in the USA, for example, describe it as ‘a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin’ (4). Other groups claim that dyslexia is a ‘disorder’ or a ‘disability’ (5), and some believe the condition is ‘likely to be present at birth’ (6).

It is no surprise that campaign groups such as Mencap and the dyslexia charities pursue and promote their own particular agendas. And there is certainly nothing wrong with people challenging what they see as degrading treatment and labelling. In this respect, disabled writers and activists have increased our awareness of the many social and cultural aspects surrounding the constitution of disability.

It is ironic, however, that as the boundary between what constitutes normal and disabled is increasingly contested, it has not followed that fewer people are labelled disabled by professionals today. In fact, the opposite is the case, as indicated by the expansion of psychiatric conditions, syndromes, addictions, disorders and learning-related difficulties.

What was most revealing about the Mencap survey and the reactions to it was the disdain with which an increasing number of people within social care view the general public. It is striking how quickly this survey became something with which to berate us for our lack of awareness, and it was used to raise fears about the potential for ignorance-fuelled abuse.

Viewed in the light of wider societal developments, the fact that the majority of those polled named ‘dyslexia’ and ‘reading/writing problem’ as learning disabilities shows that they are both attuned to and confused by contemporary social policy and the contested nature of what constitutes disability today.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published on 1 July by Policy Press.

Previously on spiked

Ken McLaughlin said widening definition of mental illness and the increase in therapeutic measures put strain on mental healthcare. He called the introduction of the Mental Capacity Act was a mad affair, and wondered whether multiculturalism could be bad for your mental health. The war against anger made Brendan O’Neill see red. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick urged us to get off the couch. Or read more at spiked issue Mental health.

(1) 73% of people cannot name a single learning disability, Community Care, 21 April 2008

(2) Mencap refreshes its vision but not its name, Community Care, 23 April 2008

(3) 73% of people cannot name a single learning disability, Community Care, 21 April 2008

(4) See the Bright Solutions for Dyslexia website.

(5) See the Dyslexia UK website.

(6) See the British Dyslexia Association website.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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