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Disability and the Continuing Grip of Oppression

  • Published: 2015-05-11 (Revised/Updated 2015-10-05) : Author: Paul Dodenhoff
  • Synopsis: Paul Dodenhoff writes on disability and the continuing grip of oppression in the U.K..

Quote: "The highly influential psychologist Maslow (1943), argued that people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and where one need is fulfilled, an individual seeks to fulfill the next one, and so forth."

Main Document

For some time now, academics have highlighted similarities between the way disabled people, Black people and Non-Christians have been treated throughout social history (Barker 1948: Chester 1965). It's certainly not a new concept to argue that the disabled have attracted a similar level of abuse, marginalization and violence. In the western world we often like to argue that general attitudes and behavior towards Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Sexuality and Disability have improved significantly from the way things used to be. That discrimination and oppression of social groups considered somehow negatively 'different' from the majority has practically been eliminated. However, events always spring up to illustrate that this is not the case.

A few weeks ago in America we witnessed the murder of a 50-year-old black man by a white police officer, a murder in which many argued was akin to an assassination. It is also follows on from the killing of a number of unarmed Black men by American police in 2014, a country where Black males are disproportionately at risk of being killed by the police. In the UK, we are not immune to similar institutionalized displays of violence, particularly towards 'minority' groups. Since 2004, there has been more than 800 cases where people have died during or following police contact. Such as the death of Mark Duggan in August 2011, who was shot by police in Tottenham, north London, and actually sparked five of days of rioting in several English cities'. More recently within the UK we have witnessed the widespread sexual exploitation of young girls within many of our cities, something that the local authorities in charge knew about but failed to act - as well as institutional abuse of elderly and dementia patients within some of our NHS hospitals.

These incidents are often considered as mere 'blips' within our civilized world - unusual and untypical experiences in a civilized and tolerant society. But 'blips' when subsequently investigated often highlight initial denial of any institutional wrong doing, tampering with evidence and attempted 'cover-up'. Often we hear the phrase 'institutional prejudice' to indicate a deep rooted and long standing bias taken by state institutions towards some social groups within society. However, doesn't the concept of institutional prejudice hide the fact that it is not the institutions themselves that are in fact prejudiced, but the people who run and control them? And motivated by something that they may be in the best position to explain.

Institutionalized prejudice or just prejudiced people

What the events above illustrate is that state institutions, although run on the behalf of the people are also run by people. People with hang-ups and prejudices like the rest of us, people who may be under pressure from the job they do, may be dominated by those above them, make serious mistakes or take bad decisions. And people who panic when those foibles, pressures and mistakes are brought to greater public attention. However, they are also people who are socialized into a world of dominant social beliefs and values that resonate throughout society. Beliefs and values that not only influence what we consider to be 'normal' or 'not normal', but 'superior' or 'inferior' and 'fact' or 'falsehood'. Beliefs and values that influence what we consider to be 'appropriate' social behavior, and although the UK often likes to portray itself to the world as a generally tolerant and multi-cultural nation, it is very clear that not all of its social groups are treated equally.

The role of self-interest

According to traditional Liberal political ideology, people are rational individuals, rational but 'self-interested'. It's a rational self-interest that is not seen as particularly harmful to society, but one often argued to drive innovation and change. A self-interest that 'accidentally' brings beneficial consequences for all of us, even if the initial motivating factor is primarily personal self-advancement and wealth creation (Smith 1763; 1896; 1976).

All of us can probably recount instances where incentives are on offer in order to 'motivate' us to do something that others want. Incentives such as 'bonuses' are offered only because human beings are indeed perceived as being 'self-interested', particularly economically. Miller (1999) argues that there is a 'social norm' of self-interest that circulates within society, and one which possesses the power to induce people to act publicly in ways that maximize their material interest, whether or not they are so inclined privately to do. However, it's not so much that people are totally self-absorbed and self-centered, just that they may believe other's to be.

So, in a highly competitive society, individuals may feel the need to follow the principles of 'self-interest', fearful that they will otherwise miss out if they don't. But, that's not to say that people cannot be altruistic or do good things for others. However, there are many social norms at play within society, some competing with others, and they may not all manifest at a material or economic level.

Needs, desires and discrimination

The highly influential psychologist Maslow (1943), argued that people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and where one need is fulfilled, an individual seeks to fulfill the next one, and so forth. Maslow proposed a five stage model that can be divided into the basic biological-physiological needs, as well as the need for safety-security, the need for love-friendship, the need for self-esteem and the need for self-actualization (self-fulfilment). All of the basic needs have to be fulfilled first, in order for us to reach our full self-potential.

Unfortunately, reaching our self-potential is often disrupted by failure to meet even the basic lower level physiological and psychological needs such as access to food, warmth, shelter and physical security, and where experiences such as unemployment or the breakup of an relationship may cause an individual to fluctuate between different levels of the hierarchy. When Maslow developed his model, he argued that perhaps only one in a hundred people actually become fully self-actualized within their lifetime, because society only rewards 'motivation' based primarily upon achievement, status and dominance, or friendship, intimacy and love. Social concepts that may not actually sit that happily together, and where notions of social status and dominance may sometimes conflict with, and overrule notions of friendship or love.

But do social beliefs held about normality, superiority and the 'right' of self-interest also combine to motivate some individuals to impose their will upon others, create a desire to manipulate and control others, and a desire to take advantage of any 'weakness' they that may see in others - purely for their own economic, social or psychological gain

Self-interest and 'difference'

Influential academics such as Barbara Perry consider that abuse, harassment and violence directed towards race, gender or sexuality, are indeed much more than just a personal deviant expression of individual bigotry, but something primarily motivated by deep-rooted 'bias and prejudice' embedded within society itself. Bias and prejudice that is so deeply and historically entrenched, not only within society's institutional structures but within its most dominant socio-cultural norms and social representations. Stereotypes and social representations that continue to help reproduce socially legitimated entitlement or discrimination based upon a social hierarchy of difference - be it Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Religion or Sexuality (Perry 2001). Or indeed, Disability (Dodenhoff 2014).

Arguably, prejudice, discrimination, abuse, harassment and violence also become a 'normative' expression of that perceived hierarchical dominance, particularly when the privileges and self-esteem of the dominant become eroded or under attack. Notions of hierarchical dominance that are so deeply embedded within society that they are consistently reproduced across time and space, from one decade to another.

As Young (1990) argues, bias and prejudice not only produces oppression, exploitation and violence, but are also the normative product of that oppression, exploitation and violence. It is also arguably, oppression, exploitation and violence that is not only considered socially legitimated behavior by some - but borne to an extent out of personal self-interest or personal gain. Be that materially, socially or psychologically (Dodenhoff 2014).

Learning to be prejudiced

Scientific evidence from the field of neuro-science suggests that 'isms' such as racism (or to put it another way, prejudice and discrimination) are things that are not naturally innate within human beings but something 'learned' along the way, primarily from puberty onwards (Telzer et al, 2013). That makes some kind of logic, as puberty has traditionally been seen as a period where young people are trying to find themselves and become more independent, particularly in trying to make sense of their own identity and of where they 'fit' within the social world.

Arguably, young people can only make sense of the social world by what they perceive to be around them and by what they see classified as 'normality', or the 'norm' within society (and what is valued by society and what is not). Nobody really tells you what 'normality' is because it is just something we work out for ourselves along the way, by a sort of social osmosis. But you will certainly know about it if you happen to get it wrong and become perceived as behaving in the 'wrong' way, socially. It may come as no real surprise that an enormous amount of bullying takes place within Britain's schools, but a surprise that we still have no real official government statistics to tell us how much. Which is in contrast to America where in 2014 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claimed that 1 in 3 students had in fact been bullied in America's schools.

However, The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in Britain report that around 45,000 children rang 'ChildLine' to talk about 'bullying' in 2012/2013 (a free 24-hour counseling service for children and young people up to their 19th birthday) and that more than 16,000 children are absent from UK's Schools due to problems with bullying. In addition, the NSPCC report that over half of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have experienced homophobic bullying at school, and that over 1,400 young people rang ChildLine in 2014 to talk about racist bullying. Many disabled people report that they have also been victims to bullying as a child, either at school or within their local community.

Why children resort to bullying is open to debate. However, I remember reading something a few years ago which argued: "The Kids who are seen as 'cool' tend to bully more than others, and the Kids who bully more are seen as 'cool'". An expression that perhaps implies that bullying (or abuse, harassment and violence) may have much to do with establishing or reaffirming some level of social status or social esteem - status and esteem arguably linked to a perceived and socially legitimated hierarchy within society. Bullying within schools may therefore contain acts of domination and oppression that mirror established patterns of normative domination and oppression within wider society itself - particularly towards race, religion, sexuality and disability.

Dominance as normative

Most dictionaries define 'dominance' as having power and influence over others. Using such a definition and applying it to British society presents 'dominance' as almost a benign concept. Certainly, we can see socially accepted and perfectly legal examples of dominance and social hierarchy in operation daily within all aspects of society - in the home (parent-child), in our schools (schoolchild-teacher) and in the workplace (employer-employee). Fill in any job application form in modern day Britain and nine times out of ten you will be asked questions about how you have 'influenced' others to change their behavior, or how would you manage somebody under your supervision and control who is not being 'productive' or behaving contrary to the organizations rules.

However, these normalized versions of 'dominance' and 'social hierarchy' are perhaps only one step removed from the oppression many social groups experience, especially when having power and influence leads to serious social, economic or psychological disadvantage for those on the wrong end of it. As Barbara Perry argues above, it is a social hierarchy established over many years, marking out continuing entitlement and privilege for some social groups, and discrimination, harassment and abuse for others.

The continuing oppression of the disabled

Disability is only a disability because of the way society treats individuals with an 'impairment' of some kind. Disability is a social construct, established and maintained through society's most dominant beliefs and values, and at its most problematic through the intentional or unintentional behavior of others.

Literature has existed for some time illuminating that disability brings many economic disadvantages such as unemployment, low pay and poor housing (Townsend 1979). Disadvantages that do not originate out of impairment itself, but out of social reaction to that impairment - reactions such as discrimination, misunderstanding, dislike or fear. However, unemployment and low pay may be addressed as originating primarily out of the mistaken beliefs that employers may have concerning the 'inferior' abilities and productivity of the disabled. But the disabled also face many disadvantages when actually in employment, such as workplace discrimination, bullying, hostility and violence - disadvantages that mirror widespread domination and oppression of the disabled within society itself.

In 2008, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that more than 11% of disabled employees experience physical violence at work, and that nearly 9% had sustained an injury because of work place violence. In addition, 25% of disabled people found that their work was continually checked, 22.5% felt that their work was unfairly criticized and 13.4% had been humiliated or ridiculed.

Disability hate crime within society is wildly under-reported at present within the UK, but many disability charities estimate that abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled to be at very high levels, and anything up to 88% of those surveyed. Arguably, negative social stereotypes and social representations surrounding disability work to detrimentally portray the disabled as potentially 'troublesome' and 'unreliable' employees in terms of health and productivity. But stereotypes that are so deeply embedded within society that they may also arouse hostility if the disabled seem to be challenging the established social hierarchy and established way of doing things - and deep suspicion if individuals with impairment do not fit seem to fit the traditional social stereotype of a disabled person.

The London 2012 Paralympics is often argued by Britain's political elite to have changed attitudes towards disability for ever. However, they haven't. Disability hate crime is currently running at more than 60,000 crimes per year according to government estimates, and a survey by Scope suggested that in London alone, 1 in 4 disabled people have actually suffered hostile, threatening behavior or violence since the 2012 London Paralympics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as images of the disabled competing in traditionally 'abled-bodied' sports not only challenge people's negative perceptions of disability and of what we consider to be physical and psychological 'strength' or 'weakness', but may also support other people's negative perceptions and suspicions that some disabled people can often do more than they may actually let on.

Since the global financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent recession, there has been a huge increase in negative political rhetoric within the UK towards the disabled and welfare benefit fraud. This has primarily been driven not only by an economic desire to reduce state spending on social welfare, but an ideological desire to redefine disability. A redefinition of disability primarily driven by a deep-rooted historical fear that some people within society are not just self-interested individuals, but self-interested and lazy individuals who will stop at nothing to get something for nothing. Therefore, the current welfare system becomes one of not only reassessing cases where there is already a substantial amount of medical evidence to illuminate a person's 'disability', but actively seeks to overrule that medical evidence - on the assumption that all disabled people are potential con-artists.

Many disabled people believe that negative political and media rhetoric directed towards sickness and disability has also motivated incidents of abuse, harassment and violence towards them by the general public. At present the evidence for this is primarily anecdotal. However, the Glasgow Media Trust in 2011 reported not only an increase in the use of words such as 'scrounger', 'cheat' and 'skiver' linked to disability within the media itself, but that the general public indeed believed that between 50 and 70 per cent of those on disability benefits were fraudsters.

The London 2012 Paralympics, although undoubtedly a successful event, may have inadvertently also contributed to the notion that the disabled can often do more than they say they can. Particularly if they are not within steady, paid employment and dependent upon state welfare for survival. If people are indeed 'self-interested' individuals as some political thinkers still believe, then it should come as no real shock if some individuals take actions in order to protect that self-interest - even if those actions are abusive, harassing or violent ones.

Additionally, if Britain's politicians and associated media circus deliberately and cynically set out to portray disabled people as potential welfare fraudsters for their own political ends, then it should not be too surprising if some of that mud actually sticks. As we hear consistently within past and present political rhetoric and within its associated media outlet - why should some people get something for nothing

However, negative attitudes towards the disabled go back a long way, and cannot be placed solely on negative political or media rhetoric towards welfare claimants. Disabled people within the UK have always come under public scrutiny for something. Medical science has traditionally monitored and controlled disability - defining and differencing between physical normality, mental normality and abnormality. Local authorities traditionally segregated the disabled from the abled-bodied and monitored the disabled to see if they are truly 'deserving' of state help. The general public, curious or fearful of illness, disfigurement or disability, have also scrutinized the disabled, not only out of curiosity but for fun and entertainment. This type of social monitoring and outright control of disability isn't just something that we used to do, it is something we still do.

The current monitoring of disability by private businesses such as Atos and Maximus (on behalf of the UK government) are arguably only a continuation of long standing establishment distrust and fear of disability. It is a continuation of the misuse of institutional structures and institutional power to control those social groups that society generally distrusts. However, it is not just an example of modern day oppression at play, but how oppression can prove to be materially lucrative for some of those involved in the process. For example, Maximus are reported to be getting paid in the region of £590 Million to £650 Million, much more than the contract that Atos initially negotiated.

While negative political rhetoric about welfare benefit abuse may not be the sole cause of abuse and violence committed towards the disabled, it is without doubt that some people within the UK have cynically exploited the disabled in order to sell welfare benefit cuts to the general public. Actions that not only comprise exploitation, but acts that lead to increased marginalization. We only need to look at official government figures on welfare spending to see that welfare fraud is actually only a very tiny part of overall UK welfare spending, with more public money lost through institutional error concerning welfare payments than by fraud itself. That fact speaks volumes.

The continuing oppression of the disabled

A simple dictionary definition of 'oppression', cites oppression as 'the prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority' , repression and exploitation. Many disabled groups argue that the British government has deliberately targeted the sick and the disabled within the UK in order to sell ideological driven welfare reduction. But it just one example of the alleged misuse of authority and government power.

The methods used by private companies such as Atos and Maximus in order to reassess disability on behalf of the British government, have also been criticized for being cruel and unjust. Methods that have caused immense distress by getting disabled people to perform humiliating 'tricks' in front of assessors in order to 'prove' again their disability. A redefining process or re-branding of disability that has caused many disabled people to lose state welfare provision, and is also argued to have driven some disabled people to commit suicide. Research undertaken by the Black Triangle campaign group within the UK, indicate that there are more than 80 cases of suicide that can be directly linked to welfare benefit cuts.

With many thousands of sick or disabled people also reported to have died within weeks of having their benefits reassessed and removed, it's very hard not to consider that oppression of the disabled is currently continuing within the UK, and at a massive, state organized level. But it is a level of oppression that may be considered not only to be humiliating and marginalizing, but brutal, aggressive and violent.

The best academic definition of oppression on offer at present is arguably Iris Marion Young's (1990) model of 'oppression', a model that breaks the concept of 'oppression' down into its component parts of oppression, exploitation, marginalization, cultural imperialism and violence. Young called this model 'the five faces of oppression', and although Young probably didn't have disability in mind when she proposed her definition, anybody looking through British social history would struggle to be find any of those component parts missing. Particularly as Young's model not only refers to the 'macro' world of government and state institutions, but also to the 'micro' world of daily human interaction.

This 'macro-micro' model pretty much mirrors the old question of 'what comes first, the chicken or the egg ' While state institutions may indeed exhibit aggressive prejudice towards social groups such as the disabled, it is people who actually make up these state institutions, not only bricks and mortar. If people can act discriminatory, abusively or violently towards other people, then state institutions can certainly act discriminatory, abusively and violently too - especially when given a perceived mandate by the wider population.

Five more years

On May 7th 2015, the British electorate re-elected a Conservative government for a further 5 years in office. Britain's antiquated 'first past the post' electoral system means that power was retained with just 37% support of all those who actually voted, with the majority, 63% of the electorate actually voting against the 'new' government. Not exactly a shining example of democracy, and arguably an example of an undemocratic society that any banana republic would be extremely proud of. It's a blatantly undemocratic system that has given a second electoral mandate to a highly aggressive, self-interested social organization promising to continue its campaign of brutal welfare reduction, as well as abolishing the protection of the European Human Rights act to British citizens.

It is the disabled who will most likely shoulder the burden of this double whammy. In June last year, Professor Gabor Gombos, a former member of the UN's Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), while addressing the Sixth International Disability Law Summer School at the National University of Ireland in Galway, announced that the UN had "started its first inquiry procedure " and that is "against the United Kingdom" . Inquiries only instigated where there are suspicions of "grave" and "systemic" violations of human rights within a country against disability (Disability News Service, 2014)

It is an inquiry that has arguably had very little impact on the current political establishment so far, as it continues to plan policy with further serious implications, not just for the disabled but for all UK citizens. However, the UN is not a policing agency by itself and has no real power or influence over any nation to enforce treaty obligations. All it can do is to negotiate with the offending nation. The UK's commitment to dismantling the European human rights of British citizens is similarly ominous, as well as odious. It is therefore essential that the international community keep a very firm eye upon the activities of the UK government, a government that may like to paint itself as a world leader in moral decency, democracy and human rights, but continues to behave like an out of control, self-interested bully. Not just at home, but most likely internationally too. You have been warned.

References

Barker, R.G (1948). The social psychology of physical disability, Journal of Social Issues, 4 (4), pp28-42

Chester, M.A (1965) Ethnocentrism and attitudes towards the physically disabled, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, pp 877-882.

EHRC

Glasgow Media Trust

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96

Miller DT. 1999 Dec; 54(12):1053-60. The norm of self-interest. Department of Psychology, Princeton University NJ 08544-1010, USA. dmiller@princeton.edu

NSPCC

Perry, Barbara. In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. Routledge. New York. 2001.

Smith, A., 1976, The Wealth of Nations edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, The Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 2a, p. 456.

Telzer, E.H, Humphreys, L.K, Shapiro M, Tottenham, N. Amydala sensitivity to Race is present in childhood but emerges over adolescence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2013, Vol 25, No 2, pp234-244.

Townsend, P. (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom (London, Penguin).

Scope

U.S Department of Health and Human Services

Young, Iris Marion. 1990. "Justice and the politics of difference". Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press.

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