What is Britain saying about disability? Part 1: the dominant story

The game changers

Scope summary of research by Linguistic Landscapes. linguistic logo

With our next campaign we want to work with others to begin shifting attitudes towards disabled people for the better. Recognising the power of language and its influence on how people think and act, we wanted to build a comprehensive picture of how people – both disabled and non-disabled – are talking around disability.

As well as our research into public attitudes towards disabled people, we worked with Linguistic Landscapes (who have previously partnered with organisations including Oxfam GB, Prostate Cancer UK, the NHS and various companies) on a ‘discourse analysis’ – basically an analysis of how people talk and write about disability. They analysed over 500 texts from 2010 to now across the media, companies providing disability services, disability charities (including Scope) and campaigners, the Government, blogs, social media and elsewhere on the internet.

In this first summary of their research, it shows there is a dominant way of talking about disability that’s entrenched in Britain today. The main narrative that’s out there – accidentally or intentionally – says that disabled people are seen as passive, homogenous not individuals, separate from ‘normal’ society, hopeless and voiceless.

Passive

      • Things happen to disabled people by others. Movement is a common metaphor and also disabled people being described as recipients: “changes to social security aren’t helping disabled people, they are pushing them into poverty” ; “how on earth they had justified throwing disabled children to the wolves”
      • Many tend to talk about rather than to disabled people:
        “they/them” not “you”
        “more than 100,000 disabled people are or risk soon being denied vital care and support”
        The voices of disabled people themselves are less evident in the mainstream than voices speaking about disabled people.
      • Where disabled people do themselves speak, there is often limited visibility of their impairment
        Disabled people’s voices appear mainly in writing, on the radio and only more recently on TV. This is partly why Paralympics was so radical by showing disabled people visibly and prominently.

‘Other’: separate or different from the mainstream 

      • Disabled people are often put with other marginalised groups
        “Sick and disabled”, “Old and disabled”, “The poor and disabled”, “Women, children and disabled people”, “BME, women and disabled (students)”.
      • This powerfully sustains an invisible norm that’s taken for granted, the ‘normal’ are the able-bodied, the unimpaired, men, straight people, white people, the non-poor etc.
      • Disabled people are overwhelmingly featured as the exception
        “Those with a disability are twice as likely to live below the poverty line – and more likely to be victims of crime”
        “Disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to experience material deprivation”
      • Common metaphors of war and survival reinforce the sense of difference
        “parents battling for support”, “barely surviving”, “war on welfare”

 Homogenous: a mass group 

      • Stripping away people’s individuality – when terms like “disabled people” are used a lot, the person is defined only by their disability and they can lose individual characteristics , even as to whether the disabled person is an adult or child. There is very little about important aspects of pleasure, like humour, relationships and sex.
      • Stories of individuals are powerful but unfortunately too often these are negative, e.g. individual ‘benefit scrounger’ stories. These have particular power when people have little understanding of the wider group of ‘disabled people’. 

Work and individual responsibility: a massive topic

      • Not working is immoral – A recent and now major context for many conversations related to disability is work, for example in politics and the media. It is a moral discourse where you are only valuable – and ‘normal’ – if you are in employment.
      • The ‘benefit scrounger’ narrative fits within this, where being passive (not working) combines with being separate (different from the majority of hardworking people), combines with individual stories.

Some of the other findings showed that disabled people are often described as special and vulnerable, in an inevitably negative situation and permanently disabled with little understanding of the nuance of people’s impairments.

What do you think? And what are the alternatives?

The end result of the language we all use isn’t necessarily intended – often it can just be unthinking.  Because there is such an established way of talking about disabled people, most people won’t question it most of the time. But seeing it laid out here sparks thinking: is this the picture we want to paint or a different one?

Please comment below or tweet with the hashtag #ScopeGameChangers.  

We have now published the second part of our findings – some of the alternatives to the dominant narrative and hope for change. Let us know what you think.

6 thoughts on “What is Britain saying about disability? Part 1: the dominant story”

  1. Being disabled does not define a person, it just an aspect/something they’re affected by. When I write about disability, I say things like “some of our patients, who are often disabled,….”. They are patients, not “disabled”.

  2. we are patients, who by society are made disabled then abused, bullied and catagorised for been a patient, it seems only the rich are allowed to have an illness and not be labelled.

  3. Disabled People in the UK are fortunate to live in a time where we can take control of our own lives. What we need is more positive role models beyond paralympians and media personalities, both for ourselves and the public at large. Education in school is key for children to grow up with an understanding of impairment.

  4. It’s about right, though, in my case. My life resembles one of a much older person. My disability made me poor. It made me vulnerable to an unimaginable extent.

    My disability has impact on every single aspect of my life. It decides when (if at all) I sleep, my mood and what I manage to achieve during the day. My disability (or the disability benefit) decides what I eat and whether I put the heating on. My disability defines how people see me – I am not like them so I get marginalised. There was “normal” life, then there was the transition period (still had hope, tried to keep on working, saw my friends, made plans) and now it is just bleak existence in a cold house praying that that meagre £100 a week is not taken away from me through sanctions, a failed assessment or a clerical error. My disability took over my life. The symptoms are all there is left. And the fear of the brown envelope.

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