Letter: Disabled, not impaired

Submitted by AWL on 17 July, 2019 - 11:18 Author: Janine Booth

Martin Thomas is still insisting that the student he referred to in a previous letter is impaired, but has yet to offer convincing evidence of this.

He appears to conclude that if we don’t recognise this student’s impairment, then we are denying the existence or significance of impairment.

I am comfortable with being labelled “disabled” as an autistic person, because society disables me by being geared to neurotypical interactions and sensitivites. I don’t think my autism is an impairment. I accept that for some people, their neurodivergence — or aspects of it — may be impairment.

I have no problem in accepting that impairment exists, and that it exists in varying degrees. I spend a fair amount of time arguing with approaches that appear to be, or which risk, denying this, which might potentially erase impairment by insisting that everything is merely difference.

Disability and impairment are not the same thing. Disability is the way in which society creates barriers and difficulties to people with impairments and differences. It is possible to be impaired but not disabled (for example, a short-sighted person whose vision is easily corrected with freely-available lenses), and also to be disabled but not impaired (as, for
example, some autistic people are).

Martin argues that his student was impaired in “participation in collective learning and discussion”. I am still not convinced that Martin can know that for sure.

His student was certainly disabled in an environment which did not suit his neurology and learning style. But he may have been able to participate in collective learning and discussion in a different format (for example in a different physical environment, through differently-structured activities, online, in written correspondence, in a smaller group, etc). Unless you know for sure that this is not the case, then the assertion that he is impaired remains open to doubt.

Moreover, “collective learning” is only one form of learning. I’m not sure that there are sufficient grounds to assume that learning in largeish groups is such a superior form of learning that it warrants “hard-wired” preference for learning alone or one-to-one as “impairment”.

Of course, we cannot blame capitalism for impairment being a significant factor. But we can indict capitalism for the massive barriers it puts in the way of people with impairments — and of people with differences.

Sometimes those barriers are such that they make difference look like impairment even when it is not.

We can also blame capitalism for its narrow definitions of what is the “norm”, including in learning and interaction styles, and its consequential assumption that those who differ from that norm are impaired. Capitalism operates what we might call a “neurocracy”: a rigid conformity, arising in large part from the conformity it demands of workers’ roles in production.

But let’s end by reasserting that whether a neurodivergent person (or any other disabled person) is impaired or not, our demands remain the same: equality, dignity, rights, the removal of barriers.

For many of us, this will require not just adjustments or workarounds, but major societal changes.

Janine Booth, Hackney

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