RIP Mike Oliver – pioneer of social model of disability

When I was in the market to buy a house, many moons ago when that was a vague possibility before it all went awry – one of the properties we looked at caught my eye. It had a fantastic red kitchen. Those who know me know I love a bit of red.

However as I was looking around I realised that there was something off. This fantastic kitchen, with a great hob and belfast sink and other nice features was, well, a little low. The surfaces, the hob, the sink, all were at a level around the top of my thighs. Such that to chop things, or wash, I would have to lean forward considerably or squat down a bit. I suddenly understood when I met the lady of the house, who was about 4ft 6in tall. I’m not an extravagantly tall person, pretty much average height, and it had never really crossed my mind that things like tables, chairs, kitchen units, were usually designed with some “average” height, weight, width in mind. And that if you fall significantly outside that average then you might face discomfort or difficulty. This lady had, when getting her lovely kitchen designed, demanded it be designed with her in mind, so she could chop, wash and cook with ease without needing to stand on a step.

We don’t always realise how things are designed, unless we fall outside the average of the notional person they are designed for.

When I first heard about the Social Model of Disability, it reminded me of this kitchen. Michael Oliver, who passed away this week, introduced the idea that “disability” is not always about the physical or mental condition we may have. That while we may certainly face pain, difficulties, impairment, distress and discomfort as a result of whatever our personal circumstances – sometimes the disability we experience – the experience of not being able to do certain things, or go somewhere, or meet expectations – is not down to our situation, but instead down to elements of design or attitude, policy or usual practice.

Diagram illustrating the social model of disability - A small man is surrounded by arrows pointing away from him, each pointing to the word "barriers". This is within a circle titled "Society". To the right, a flow chart shows "Social Barriers", leading to three sets: "Environment, which includes Inaccessible buildings, language, services and communications" "Attitudes, includes prejudice, sterotypes and discrimination", and finally "Organisations, which includes inflexible procedures and practices"

If you are invited to an interview in an office on the seventh floor of a building, and you get there and there is no lift – if you are a wheelchair user for instance, or have mobility issues, or other health condition which makes climbing seven flights of stairs an impossibility, then you are rendered “unable” to attend that interview by many factors. The fact the architects did not put in a lift. The fact the people you are meeting did not consider that this might be a problem. The fact they did not think to ask and make alternative arrangements. The assumption that the people who will be invited will not have a problem. If the designers of a building had not deigned to put in any stairs either – then more of us would be “disabled” by this lack of consideration. Unless we are fantastic climbers, or super heroes who can fly. On the other hand, features such as ramps and lifts which make a place accessible to people with the kind of conditions I mentioned above – do not disadvantage those who might otherwise use the stairs. They are useful for all – people with prams or suitcases, heavy bags, a temporary injury, or even just when feeling a bit tired and unfit. While we would hope and expect people to give priority to those who need the lift / ramp or space on the bus due to disability – (and also to remember that disability is not always visible to the observer) – there is no ban on using it at other times if you don’t fall in that category.

As I said, we don’t necessarily think of our world and our days as “designed”. But at some point we have settled on certain averages because they suited someone. Lets think of our working days. That average 9-5, or whatever our shifts are. Originally, unfortunately many employers would expect staff to work whatever hours, in whatever conditions they could get away with. Poverty combined with the ready availability of alternate workers meant that people put up with horrendous conditions and barely having a life outside of work because there was no other choice to put food on the table or a roof overhead. Thankfully over time good people decided this was wrong and campaigned for change and brought in legislation to impose boundaries and expectations on employers as to what they can, can’t and must do in terms of their duty of care over staff.

Four miles up the road from me is Todmorden, birthplace of MP John Fielden, who is celebrated in various places throughout the town for his achievements which included the restriction of the working day in the 10 Hours Act, or Factories Act 1847 – and also campaigning for minimum wages / recompense, and against the employment of children. Since then, we have campaigned for and acquired more rights and protections, further “designing” our working lives.

One of the most powerful pieces of legislation which has helped to ensure we can challenge any unfairness or lack of consideration in our working lives is the Equality Act 2010. Covering many different aspect of equality – most notably in this regard this Act takes over from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in placing a duty on employers to protect disabled staff from discrimination, – and also requiring them to make adjustments to try and overcome any barriers a person may face as a result of their disability. This latter is essentially acknowledging the social model – that sometimes there are things we can do which remove the barrier or difficulty and enable us to get on with our lives and jobs just like anyone else.

“Disability” under the Act is where a condition, physical or mental, has a significant and long term impact on our ability to carry out the activities of daily life. This – and what is classed as a “reasonable adjustment” – are deliberately vague – and only truly decided in court or tribunal. Should this person’s condition be considered a disability and therefore protected, is this adjustment reasonable – these are questions which some employers get wrapped up in. It is a puzzling approach, to be prepared to take the risk of prosecution for discrimination, in an attempt not to have to help someone do their job better. Because that is what a reasonable adjustment is there to do – overcome the barriers that are making it hard for someone to do their job as they would like to.

Mental ill health can certainly be a disability, and can impact our ability to do our jobs, or to get out of bed, or look after ourselves. However in many jobs the kind of adjustments which might help us are quite simple to implement, and cost nothing. Changes in attitudes, trust, support, flexibility. The more flexible we can be and willing to try alternative approaches, the more likely our workplaces will be suitable for a wide range of human beings rather than just some notional “average” person. I don’t like the phrase “reasonable adjustment”. I would rather instead that we acknowledge that we make provision for every employee in one way or another. We provide them with equipment, a desk, a computer, protective gear, training, a manager – whatever the requirements of the job. What I would like is for us to think about “appropriate provision” for each employee according to their needs, rather than adjustments from an average provision which is often ill thought out and doesn’t fit anyone very well. If our world is designed with us in mind, and we don’t face any unnecessary barriers, that is when we can all start to thrive, and achieve whatever we want to in life – including optimum performance and productivity which benefits our employers and society as a whole.

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