‘Systematic Ableism’: Disability Inequality in Europe

By Luke Gillis

Image via Pixabay

Activist Michèle Taylor talks to TheCity.ie about how the social model of society is causing ableism across Europe

There are 643,131 people in Ireland living with a disability. That’s more than 13 per cent of the population. Ireland is also the worst country for people with a disability to live in due to there being a 24% chance of them living in poverty. This all comes from a survey by the EU Statistics on Income and Living from 2017, and in the past four years, not much has changed at all.

We spoke with Michèle Taylor, activist and director for Change at Ramps on the Moon. She is based in Nottinghamshire, England, but she has done many online workshops about disability equality including one she hosted for students of TU Dublin in October.

“I think the key issue is around misconceptions about disabled people, is that we are defined by what we can’t do, and what our limitations are. This is perpetuated by the narrative that is so prevalent which talks about the achievements of disabled people as being ‘despite’ their conditions. In fact, the truth is that disabled people achieve the things we do despite ableism, not despite our conditions.”

Ableism of course being the discrimination and social prejudice of people with disabilities. According to Oxford Languages: Ableism characterizes people who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled.

When asked about what is brought up and talked about in the workshops, she said she talks about the power of stereotypes and how they come from the stories we are all of us immersed in from the moment we are born about what kind of people we are, and what other people are like. They also look at some key statistics and then explore the Social Model of disability which says that people are disabled by the way society and its environments are designed, built and maintained (environments being physical, digital, attitudinal, financial, etc.).

“We can’t help the fact that we have been given these stories, but we do have a responsibility to examine those stories in order to surface which bits of our world view we want to continue to align with. […] We are not disabled by our medical conditions. There are many implications that flow directly from the Social Model.”

But Taylor’s involvement in activism was not a deliberate choice. It began as she was working in the arts a performer, writer and director in the theatre and noticed that she was experiencing discrimination and limited opportunities compared to others. 

“Honestly, I didn’t really put two and two together until I discovered the Social Model and then everything fell into place about what work I was and was not getting, what people expected of me and how people reacted to me. I started to talk openly about it and this gradually morphed into being asked to deliver training and to advise mainstream cultural organisations about how they could do better. For the last six years, I have been Director for Change at Ramps on the Moon, an Arts Council England funded consortium of mid-scale mainstream theatres that is having real impact changing the theatre industry.”

When asked about what the likes of government could do to try and tackle these issues in the social model, Taylor said:

“This is a huge question. Unfortunately, here in England, 19 months into a pandemic during which disabled people have been badly let down by our government, it is very hard to be positive. In many ways, disabled people, certainly in England at least, are in an even more precarious position than we have been for years.”

Taylor went on to explain how the Social Model has been particularly hard during the pandemic.

“I think there is a lack of understanding of who disabled people are and that it is systemic ableism that is the problem, not our medical conditions. A key engine of maintaining this ableism is vocabulary that uses words like ‘vulnerable’ as though it is an inherent characteristic rather than a situation into which people are put by systems that have let them down. […] Legislation looks like it’s positive, but it is rarely enacted and it is so difficult to call anyone to account through the law that its effectiveness is very limited.”

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