The Social Model of Disability: Things Just got Real

Hi, my name is Sam and I’m the Project Support Officer here at Swansea MAD. I was born with Cerebral Palsy and use mobility aids every day. One of the things I love about working here is that I don’t have to worry about accessing anything like the toilet or getting up and down multiple flights of steps. It sounds small but these things go a long way to making sure that disabled people feel comfortable and like they have even been thought of at all. I’ve had this blog post stewing in my head for a while now and I’ve been thinking a lot about the social model of disability and how my own experiences have given it more validity in my eyes. 

For context, the social model of disability argues that it is the world that disables people through barriers created by a lack of accessible facilities rather than a person’s physical condition. An example would be a blind or partially sighted person not being able to read a document because there isn’t a braille copy. The responsibility for that would be with whoever is providing the document and not the person who needs to read it.

One of these experiences happened on Halloween, which is quite funny in a tragicomic type of way. It was at an event being held at a well-known venue in Swansea where there was a lot of alcohol so naturally, toilets were being used and being used a lot. After arriving at the building I was made aware that all the male toilets were now to be used by women and the male toilets for this evening were a selection of porta-loos outside. I was not able to use the outside toilets so my only option was to go to the now women’s toilet. I want to clarify that I have no issue with shared or non-gendered spaces however, I had to wait for someone to clear out the toilets before I could use them, while the person who led me to the toilets explained to everyone in there what was happening. It was the lack of discretion I was disappointed with. Watching me awkwardly apologise to the mass exodus of people leaving the toilet would have made even Larry David’s toes curl! A complaint was lodged but I heard nothing back from them. 

I went back to this place for a similar Christmas-themed event hoping that it would be different. I was not shocked to find it exactly as it was. This time when I asked about the toilets I was told that I could not use them as I was doing last time. This was more than likely just somebody who had not been informed about what to say or do if a disabled person attended the event which in itself is its own problem. Needless to say, this prompted the people I was with that night to kick up a bit of a fuss. As much as I appreciate them for doing this, it meant that I now felt like a special exception rather than just one of the many people trying to enjoy their night and that’s the problem. Disabled people are often thought of after the fact and in situations like these it really shows. It’s pointless to blame the people on the ground who were working security, or any staff that was there at the time. This is more of a general attitude, a cultural underpinning. It put me into a melancholy that meant I could not enjoy the night at all. I should have been singing cheesy Christmas songs, instead, I withdrew and sat on a bench outside by myself beaten by my mood until my friends found me.

The reason I say all this is to demonstrate how significant something like disability access can be. It was the difference between a good and a bad night out for me but what if this sliding doors scenario was applied to a different context? A job interview missed because of poor access could result in catastrophic circumstances for the person. It’s not just a flight of steps, these things matter, they just don’t matter to everybody. This is where the social model of disability can help as it gives us the basis to start seeing the world as a place where adjustments have to be made for people rather than adjustments having to be made by people. A small distinction but a vital one.

The Office for National Statistics reported over the past year that 12.5% of disabled people that were asked reported that it was difficult getting into or moving around buildings compared to 1.2% of non-disabled people. A similar number of those had difficulty accessing toilets with 13.1% compared to 2.2%. It should be noted that COVID-19 was the largest barrier that both groups of people faced and it should not be disregarded when taking into account difficulties with access. Conversely, in 2023 with coronavirus measures being less prevalent we can assume that these numbers are as close to being pre-pandemic as possible. What this illustrates above all else is that there is an in-built inequality favouring non-disabled people that permeates a lot of our society. The gym I go to is a good example of this. The company that runs the gym moved into the building only a few years ago and their disabled access is completely dependent on a person at the desk allowing the person access. Non-disabled people can just punch their codes in while I have to wait for someone (who isn’t always readily available) to let me through. Something like this takes away a person’s agency and means that naturally more attention will be drawn to them. The social model can also mean that disabled people can avoid unnecessary attention. In a world where no one is disabled by barriers, everyone becomes equal making standing out a lot more difficult. The ability to ghost through unnoticed is like gold dust to me. Whenever I have difficulty because of a lack of or inadequate access there may as well be a massive sign above my head saying “I AM DIFFERENT”. As someone who experiences bouts of anxiety and doesn’t always want to be seen, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me when I can just enter and exit somewhere effortlessly without having to get into a dialogue with someone.

The social model of disability is considered a way of looking at the world. A filter through which to view a minority group in society. However, my recent experiences have taught me that it is closer to reality than I once thought it was. It certainly shouldn’t be treated as some kind of unimpeachable doctrine but its enduring presence in conversations surrounding disability suggests that it certainly has a point.