I don’t usually talk about myself in these blogs, but I find myself in the situation of being a living example of the Social Model of Disability. This model is my preferred framework for describing “disability”. In short, it suggests that people who have “impairments” (for example, sight or hearing impairments, mobility issues, neurological conditions, mental health conditions etc) are primarily disabled by the barriers that society puts in our way. In other words, the wheelchair isn’t the problem, the stairs are. For a longer explanation see here.
I have experienced this phenomenon in the past year, through changing the environment where I live and work. My impairment is a degenerative spinal condition, which causes severe and chronic pain, making walking and sitting very difficult. Until last September, I lived in a small town in the Midlands. The consequences of my impairment were that it was very difficult to live an independent life, and there were many activities, both socially and professionally, which I was unable to do.
If I needed to go anywhere further than a short distance away, I was unable to drive myself there because it required sitting for too long. The nearest bus stop was too far to walk to and there were no nearby trains. The only way to get there would be to have someone drive, whilst I lay down in the passenger seat (with the back of the seat laid back as far as it would go). This was a) an extremely painful and uncomfortable way to travel, and b) relied on someone being available and willing to take me.
For work-related appointments I hired a driver (thankfully paid for by Access to Work). If I had an appointment, he would pick me up and transport me there, provided it could be planned well in advance to ensure his availability. For trips to London (quite frequent, as many of the employers who use Evenbreak have head offices there) this involved either a round trip of up to eight hours in a day (leaving me in so much pain I was useless for the following two days), or staying overnight which became very expensive. Nothing could ever be done spontaneously, and I avoided most meetings, or had a telephone conversation instead, which severely impacted on my ability to gain new business.
Socially, because I’m unable to sit at a table to eat a meal, I was restricted when eating out to the only three pubs within my short driving distance which had high tables where I could stand and my companions sit on bar stools.
Then in September I moved to a flat close to the centre of London. There are bus stops literally right outside the entrance to the flats, where I can get to pretty much anywhere within central London within 20 minutes at the most. I’m able to stand on a bus, so to go to a meeting in the City now takes a 10 minute bus ride there, perhaps a meeting where I can stand for an hour, and then another 10 minute bus ride home. Contrast that with an eight hour uncomfortable car ride – nine hours including the meeting. This means I can attend many more meetings that I would have previously avoided. It also means I can go to networking events which I couldn’t have justified before.
Socially, life has changed beyond recognition! There are places I can eat at high tables within walking distance of my flat, and hundreds within a 10 minute bus journey. I can go to a different place every night, if I chose to do so, with an amazing choice of venues and cuisines.
Even ‘though my impairment hasn’t changed, I am able to do so much more, independently and spontaneously, because my environment has changed. My business has become much easier to run, and my social life has taken off. Being independent is something I can’t put a price on.
The Social Model also helps me to realise that I am not the problem – I’m not a ‘person with disabilities’, I’m a ‘disabled person’ – disabled by my environment, and much less so now my environment has changed. I am able to do much more, as I am less disabled by an inaccessible environment.
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