What is Disability?

The Stalking Histories Project uses a Social Model approach to the issue of disability. This means that we have particular ideas about what disability is, what causes it and what we should do about it.
The Social Model defines disabled people as a social group who have a common experience of discrimination. Disabled people are those who have impairments and as a result are disabled by the barriers in society. A Social Model approach uses a broad definition of who is a disabled person and encourages people to positively define themselves as disabled. Broadly it covers three groups of people:

" People who have physical impairments or differences
" People who have learning disabilities
" People who are survivors of the mental health system, people who experience mental distress or mental/emotional difference.

Firstly it is important to understand that the Social Model separates impairment from disability. Impairment is a long term/permanent medical condition or physical/mental difference which the disabled person experiences. The Social Model re-defines disability as a social construction; it is the negative attitudes, the inflexible organisational procedures, the inaccessible information and the barriers in the built environment that exclude disabled people. So disability is the discrimination and exclusion perpetrated against the disabled people.
The most common way of understanding disability is often called the Medical or Individual Model of Disability. This model places the cause of disability, the source of the problem, with the disabled individual. It describes disability as a medical problem and a personal tragedy. Any difficulties that arise are seen as the individual's problem and something they must learn to cope with. They are expected to adapt their lives and compensate for the impairment themselves. The solution, in this approach, is that disabled people need to be 'cured' if they are to be 'considered normal for a human being'. If the impairment is 'incurable' and it is not possible to 'normalise' the individual then often segregation is the strategy employed.

This medical understanding of disability is the traditional view and it is rooted in the historical development of the medical industry. It is the foundation for all services and legislation relevant to disability. The enforcement of this approach has institutionalised discrimination against disabled people.

So, to illustrate the different models with a simple example: Take a situation where a person, who has a mobility impairment and so, is unable to access a public building because of the stairs. A social model approach here would identify the stairs as the problem and a ramp as the solution for the benefit of the whole community. In contrast the medical model would identify the problem as the person being unable to use the stairs, solutions will probably be individual; to use the service located in the inaccessible building on the behalf of the disabled person; to use medical intervention to enable them to use stairs or to provide an alternative option (segregation).

So to go back to those original questions at Stalking Histories we believe that Disability (discrimination) is a human creation. It is a consequence of the beliefs, values and behaviours in our society. For example the assumption that people can walk up stairs has led to behaviours which have created an inaccessible environment to those who do not walk up stairs. If disability is a consequence of human activity then it can be changed. Impairment and difference, of course, will always be with us in some form.

At Stalking Histories we are interested in artwork that is informed by these ideas, particularly when dealing with the issue of impairment. This kind of art is often called 'Disability Arts' because it is not just art made by people who happen to have impairment/difference but art made to explore and increase our understanding of Disability and the experience of impairment and difference.