Sociologist from Malta

Friday, February 04, 2011

Disabled by society?

Michael Briguglio

The Times, Friday, 4th February 2011

On a European and global level, there are interesting and welcome developments on the politics of disability. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is picking up and Malta is expected to ratify it this year.

The European Union has launched a 10-year strategy on disability – which was recently discussed in Malta within the Malta-EU Steering Action Committee of which I am a core group member. The European Commission is proposing to standardise the social benefits for persons with disability in all member states to ensure such persons do not face additional hurdles when they travel within the EU.

Besides, the proposed EU anti-discrimination directive aims to eliminate discrimination as regards access to various social services at various levels, including disability. Unfortunately, this directive is facing many obstacles from various governments due to the variety of exclusionary policies in certain member states.

All this represents a growing awareness on disability rights. Social movements active in this field play a significant role in this regard.

“Disability” is not a fixed term. Sure, there are physical and intellectual challenges certain people have and which cannot be denied. But such disability is not simply a personal and individual problem but rather a question of how society constructs and deals with such challenges. For example, if buses have steps which are too high, this would immediately render persons disabled due to lack of access. Similarly, persons with disability can be socially excluded through social policies and discourses which see them as a burden. It is not a coincidence that sociological research shows that persons with disability are often victims of poverty and social exclusion due to insufficient means that enable them to participate fully in community life, education and employment.

On the other hand, persons with disability can be socially included if their needs are seen as a challenge and an opportunity for society. In this case, disability would be seen as forming part of the plurality and diversity of needs and identities which citizens of any society may have. This is precisely the type of approach Green parties support.

Malta has gone quite a long way in the social construction of disability. Some decades ago, persons with disability where hidden in families’ basements or locked away in institutions. Later on, they were labelled as being “handicapped”. Yet, some activists and NGOs stood up to be counted and helped influence social policy to be more socially inclusive. Malta’s EU accession has surely helped empower the movement of persons with disability, yet much more needs to be done for further inclusion and empowerment.

To begin with, such persons should not be lumped into one social category devoid of difference. There are various degrees and types of disability, from the physical to the intellectual – and such identities intersect with other identities that each individual has – such as gender, class, sexuality, age and so forth.

Social policy on disability should involve a mix of measures that compensate persons with disability for social inequalities. For example, more should be done with regard to employment, employability and community participation. As a mere starting point, existing legislation such as that regarding employment of persons with disability and that regarding access to public buildings should be strictly enforced. The latter should also include public facilities. Unfortunately, the erstwhile positive developments of the Ta’ Qali and Qui-si-Sana parks do not include facilities that are accessible to persons with disability.

The disability pension, which amounts to 55 per cent of the minimum wage, surely does not encourage independent lifestyles. Budget 2011 once again represented a missed opportunity for a realistic upward revision of this social benefit.

The last Budget could also have taken heed of the demands of concerned parents for the development of centres for persons with a disability through public-private partnerships. Indeed, community-based supported living facilities deserve more public funding. Besides, as I have already argued in previous articles in The Times, Budget 2011 could also have accepted the demands of groups for recognition of certain conditions, such as ME and FM, as disability.

As regards education, it is positive that through the current educational reform – which AD supports resource centres for persons with disability form part of colleges. At post-secondary level, however, things are not so clear with regard to the segregation or inclusion of students with learning disability. Does the Education Division have clear guidelines in this regard?

It is also important to recognise that certain problems are still considered as taboo and are hardly spoken about because of fear of labelling. Besides, there is lack of policies which encourage independent living and which deal with areas such as sexuality, independence and vulnerability of persons with learning disability.

Research on persons with disability should also be given more value. With this I am not only referring to statistics, important as they are, but also to qualitative research that can portray realities and social constructions, such as emotions, sexualities, discourses and social networking that can never be presented through numerical generalisations.

In the last instance, the social construction of disability rights helps make up “everyday democracy”. Persons with disability, their families and carers, NGOs, political parties and experts all have an important role to play in such a reclamation of rights.

The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.

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