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29 May 2007

Can things only get better?

History isn't necessarily a tale of unremitting progress...

By James Medhurst

It seems deceptively obvious that the lives of disabled people have improved throughout history. After all, the ancient Spartans killed disabled babies at birth while now there are only a few rogue academics, such as Peter Singer, who advocate this brutality.

However, it is too easy to fall into the ‘Whig’ approach to history, to regard it as a tale of remitting progress leading inexorably to the present day, and to assume this trend will continue. In fact, many scholars in the field of disability studies have challenged this assumption and their analysis provides a very important corrective. There is evidence that many cherished innovations of the last two centuries, some of which are unquestioned by conventional wisdom, may actually have been detrimental to disabled people and our goal of equality.

The sociologist Vic Finkelstein has convincingly argued that the Industrial Revolution is one such example. Small businesses are remarkably flexible and can accommodate new ways of working with relative ease. Large corporations, on the other hand, often demand a one-size-fits-all workforce for their production lines, so disabled people can frequently be excluded. Furthermore, increased geographical mobility has led to the decline of local communities, many of whom had a personal relationship with the disabled people in their midst, and hence felt an obligation towards encouraging their integration. In the modern world, there is a vicious cycle linking unemployment to social isolation, and any physical or mental impairment making it hard to get a job can be the trigger for a downward spiral.

A more recent trend is the service revolution, in which communication is regarded as key to attracting customers. I recently took part in a workshop in which groups were asked to solve a problem but only 10% of the marks were awarded for the quality of the solution. The rest were for presentation. I have no doubt that this set of priorities is detrimental to not only the competence of management in most major organisations but also the chances of career success for those with autism or mental health difficulties. In the past, quirks were tolerated in people of high birth but, ironically, the decline of class privilege has led to a new hierarchy based on a different set of social graces. Looks are also increasingly important in fields such as politics, David Mellor and John Prescott aside. As has often been said about the far from pretty Abraham Lincoln, it can be questioned whether the wheelchair-user Franklin Roosevelt could be elected president of the United States today.

The example of the Spartans is misleading because many other eras had a very different approach to disability. Although God-fearing football managers now regard impairment as a karmic punishment for sin, their more theologically sophisticated forebears often saw it as a cosmic test, conferring sainthood upon its recipients. This would arguably not be much of an improvement but it shows how much flexibility is possible when it comes to how people are perceived.

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Turning back the clock is not a solution but, just people from other times have used the tools at their disposal to treat disabled people with respect, we have no reason to be unable to do the same. Instead of tight local networks, we have the benefit of a centralised state to pass equality legislation, and a mass media to promote the need for flexible management structures. The global village must truly become a village.

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