Lip-service equality (BADD 2009)

Friday, May 1, 2009 0:01 | Filed in Accessibility, Disability, Equality, Life, Public Sector

BADD 2009 = Blogging Against Disablism Day 2009.

I’m not disabled. I do however have a dodgy knee, which seems quite likely to cause me more difficulties as it gets older, so it is entirely possible that I will become disabled at some point. In fact, were I to live long enough, I suspect it becomes almost certain that I will be disabled at some point.

If I were to live as long as Harry Patch for example, and assuming I was still capable of blogging on the run up to my 111th birthday, I suspect I would be classed as disabled. It is something that will come to us all, providing we live long enough. But we (us “normal”, “normies”, “disability-challenged”, non-disabled folk) don’t generally think of the elderly when we think of the disabled. We tend to think of people who are disabled by something other than the aging process.

Language Lip: Disability Models and Disability Words

Of course, the social model of disability tells us that they are disabled by society: that while they might have very poor hearing, for example, this could certainly be considered an impairment, but it would not in itself be disabling, were it not for the fact society does not generally adapt enough to their needs. The medical model of disability would say that the people are disabled by the fact that they have very poor hearing. My personal belief is that both models are appropriate, depending upon the circumstances: for example, the social model deals most effectively with disability discrimination (and preventing it); the medical model is better used by the medical profession when looking at the condition in question…

This leads to different terms being preferred. Some people use “with a disability” (this is more ‘medical model’); some people use “disabled” (more ‘social model’). Some people use ‘the disabled’ (which some people don’t like as it lumps everyone into a group as diverse as ‘the left-handed’). I will no doubt end up using what is perceived as the wrong term from time to time. Fortunately, there are people around to politely remind me:

@ThePickards I *am* disabled. I *have* impairments. I do NOT “have a disability”. Social model, dearest.@ladybracknell

Which is also an excellent summation of the social model: a disabled person has impairments, but they are disabled by society…

My argument is that while people should know and understand the reasons behind the terms (and the fact that many official governmental sources don’t seem to know which one they are supposed to use) this is not as important as the way you actually deal with people. It’s still important to get the terms right (and certainly not to use particularly offensive or patronising ones) but to someone (*ahem*) with a disability it’s generally more important how they are actually treated then whether or not someone (particularly someone not expected to be ‘in the know’) uses the right term.

I also think it’s important that people don’t take needless offence, or to look for insulting language when it is not being used. For example, one disability blogger wrote this about a piece they had read elsewhere:

…is a blog with an ethos of promoting equality for women, for homosexuals, for black people, brown people and one suspects even green people from the planet Zog. So to read an article on such a platform which casually refers to ‘brain drain mongers’ both sickens and disappoints me. Some groups really are more equal than others, even amongst self describing liberals.

I’ve not provided a citation, because the person has made simply misunderstood something — which we’ve all done from time to time — and I don’t wish to single someone out for that: in this case confusing “mongers” (a term meaning basically meaning ‘trader’, as in fishmonger, cheesemonger, ironmonger, costermonger and so on) with “mongers” as an insulting slang term implying “having mongoloid characteristics” which is of course the offensive way we should no longer refer to people with Down’s syndrome.

If the term had been used in this out-of-date offensive disablist context, then I would have thought the writer would have been perfectly justified in this attack. However, I felt that it was unfair to infer that the writer of the original piece had intended to use disablist language when the more common — and non-insulting — version of the word would have suited the piece better.

In the original context, I believe the meaning as mongers of “traders in a particular idea” is even clearer:

But let’s suppose lots of rich people really do leave the country – what are we losing? The Brain Drain mongers would have us believe we are losing not just a chunk of the wealthiest 1%, but a chunk of the best…

Importantly, what became clear from the whole debate (in the comments) was that the original author obviously had meant to use it in the “trader” sense (and was initially appalled at the idea they had accidentally said something offensive before explaining the actual meaning in which it was used); that the person who had initially taken offense accepted this, and neither had any objection to the other. See, they’re both good people, capable of behaving like mature adults!

However, although I have some sympathy for some of the commenters who felt the offense was unjustified, the one who thought it “retarded” (and others with similar sentiments) did manage to demonstrate the disablism that wasn’t present in the initial article. [Update: however, that blogger has gone on to explain why her personal experiences would have lead her to assume the word was being used in an offensive manner]

[note: as there have been some anonymous commenters, I think it wise to be explicit that I have not posted on either article]

There’s three key points here.

The first is that where an offensive term is used, it may be through ignorance that the term is offensive: it is better to explain why a term is offensive. This is demonstrated by the delectable Lady B, who has a rather excellent blog, if one which she doesn’t update nearly often enough.

Secondly, disabled people (or people with a different skin colour, or religion, or culture) should not assume someone has automatically used a term in an offensive context, when a more appropriate reading could be found. If they do this, it may appear to some that this blogger has gone with the intention of finding something to take offense at (but having read other posts on the blog, and having read various comments, it is clear this was not the case here), and the anger/indignation at the perceived disablist term is exactly the sort of propaganda that the “political correctness gone mad!” lobby love to have land in their laps.

  • You can’t say “it’s a black day for such-and-such anymore”. It’s political correctness gone mad!
  • You can’t wear crosses any more for fear of offending someone’s religious sensibilities. It’s political correctness gone mad!
  • They don’t even call it Christmas now any more, they call it Winterval. It’s political correctness gone mad!
  • What do you mean blind people need to be able to use the internet? They’ll be asking to drive cars next! It’s political correctness gone mad!
  • You can’t use the word monger anymore! It’s political correctness gone mad!
  • You can’t even beat up a nigger anymore! It’s political correctness gone mad!

I for one feel that political correctness is a good thing. I think it’s great that we don’t find racist, sexist, religionist (?), disablist, homo- and xenophobic language to be acceptable. So I’d ask others that think similarly not to give any succour or encouragement to the “political correctness gone mad” erm… mongers… because I suspect that in some cases the latter sentiment is only slightly beneath the surface (although possibly with a hint more Islamophobia), so I would ask people to choose their battles carefully, ‘lest ye provide the anti-PC brigade with ammunition.

And finally, a genuine slip of the tongue (as opposed to deliberate choice of that word) is not in itself disablism. I mentioned this last February with bloopers aren’t disablism, brutality is, and I’m returning to the subject again today, when I look at two examples what I perceive is lip-service equality for the disabled — giving the impression you care without actually bothering to understand the real issues…

Hospital Lip Service

It is very easy for the disabled to receive ill-treatment. It is very easy for those who find it difficult to ‘kick up a fuss’ to fail to get the service they (and indeed everyone else) has a right to expect. But we as society ought to be making sure that these voices are being heard. In fact, for our public bodies, it is actually legislated in terms of the Disability Equality Duty.

But frighteneningly, a lot of big organisations seem to be more concerned about getting the terminology and ticky-boxes right than actually ensuring they don’t discriminate. This is paying lip-service to disability discrimination. And this is harmful. And, as you may have guessed, is the subject of the rest of this post…

Would any NHS Hospital taking the rights of the disabled seriously have allowed a man with learning disabilities to starve to death over 26 days, because he had difficulty in communicating.

It is easier for people to produce the documents, to tick off the check boxes than it actually is to ensure they aren’t discriminating against people. Kingston Hospital (where Martin Ryan starved to death in agony) published their Disability Equality Scheme in 2006.

How does the Trust’s own Disability Equality Scheme think they should do things?

Referrals from GP’s and/or other hospitals to include information relating to the patient’s impairment and any access needs. For example [...] Learning Difficulties

[...]Staff will be aware in advance of people’s needs and act on these accordingly to provide a positive experience for the patient.

Kingston Hospital NHS Trust: Disability Equality Scheme (PDF)

I somehow don’t feel that starving to death was a positive experience for the patient. But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The hospital’s Disability Equality Scheme was published in December 2006. They produced an action plan as part of this scheme, which had 55 action points.

As at April 2009, guess how many are marked as completed. Go on, guess…


This tells me one of two things. Either the NHS trust haven’t bothered updating the action plan, because they don’t see how they deal with people with disabilities as particularly important (which is a little surprising, given that when someone with learning disabilities starves to death in their care you’d think the negative publicity would make them consider it a little), or because they simply haven’t done it. Because it has all been about the ticky-box exercise.

“We are required to publish a Disability Equality Scheme by December 2006, this is the bit the Government will check up on, this is the bit we’ll do.”

Oh wait, perhaps I am being unjustly cynical…

A report on the implementation of the Scheme will be published annually

Kingston Hospital NHS Trust: Disability Equality Scheme (PDF)

…er… where is it, then? They’ve not done it. They’ve ticked the initial box, and they’ve not followed through. Lip-service equality. That’s why people die. Of course, I would happily have suggested that it’s more important to ensure that they were treating people correctly than producing a follow-up to the scheme, but the fact they hadn’t indicates that they think equality is something you do once, produce your glossy self-congratulatory brochure, and then it’s complete.

Which, as we all know, is bollocks.

Website lip service

It’s the same with web accessibility. Depending on where you are — and my experience in the area relates to UK Local Authorities — you’ll know different things about web accessibility. For one thing, UK Local Authority sites are pretty much the most accessible sites in the world, period. They are generally better than central government, they are generally better than business, and more importantly…

…most local government web developers I have spoken to have actually taken the time and trouble to understand why doing something in a particular way is accessible or inaccessible. They understand a bit about the assistive technology (screenreaders, text-to-speech software and so on) that make it easier for disabled people to use the web. They understand that some people can’t use the mouse.

And, for the most part, they generally do a pretty good job at making sites fairly accessible. They aren’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but the sites they produce are more accessible than any other sector.

Yet all of the press releases don’t deal with whether or not disabled people can actually use the site. They deal with whether or not the sites comply with a set of guidelines. This is missing the point somewhat.

The guidelines which are frequently referenced are WCAG 1.0. These are out of date, having been produced 10 years ago, and were superceded by WCAG 2.0 last year. They were also designed as tips which could be used to help people make their sites more accessible to disabled people. They were not an end in themselves. They were a means to that end.

And yet they are not treated as such by the PR people, by the people putting out the press releases. For them, it’s easier to put out a headline related to something more measurable — how many checkpoints someone has passed or failed, as opposed to something actually more useful — whether or not people with disabilities can actually use the site.

But Better Connected 2009 shows that little, if anything, has been done to address the problem. Almost exactly the same number of councils surveyed (36) [out of 464] achieved a Level A rating, and for the second year running, none have achieved Level AA or Level AAA — the highest rating possible [...]

[...]the original consultation process for ‘Delivering inclusive websites’ in 2007 had suggested that government sites should have their rights to use the ‘’ web domain withdrawn unless they met Level AA by December 2008, a recommendation which, luckily for the public sector, was eventually watered down.

E-Access Bulletin

Never let what is important get in the way of a good story. Firstly, the implication is that councils are lucky that the recommendation was watered down. Of course, what E-Access Bulletin don’t point out is that neither they (on that specific page) nor SOCITM (who produced the report) fail to live up to the AA standard themselves.

It’s easy to put the boot in, it’s harder to actually match the standard yourself. Not to mention that withdrawing the ‘’ domain was a stupid idea anyway (the cost to the council of publicising every new email address, a new site etc? Who would that help?) and despite many domains breaching the guidance for domains, none of them have ever been removed before.

But SOCITM have chosen the guidelines as the thing which is important, not “whether or not the sites are actually accessible to real people”, ‘cos that’s a little trickier to produce ranking tables of. It was left to the RNIB (who carried out the testing) to actually produce the voice of reason (even if sadly, this didn’t make it to the headlines)…

The RNIB was also largely positive about the report’s findings, claiming that the figures do not necessarily represent a widespread lack of accessibility. “In fact, we noticed a significant improvement in the real accessibility of most of the websites we assessed. Unfortunately that doesn’t always show in a strict conformance check,” said Bim Egan

E-Access Bulletin

Understanding accessibility and making sites accessible to disabled users — that is fighting for equality. That is the local government web monkeys. Ignoring the practicalities of accessibility in order to provide a headline — that’s not only simply paying lip-service to equality, it’s a fist in the face to those doing most to produce accessible websites. That is SOCITM; that is the media. That form of lip-service equality does not help anyone.

Yes, it’s important to highlight where websites are going wrong. It’s important to provide advice for people wanting to develop more accessible websites (see Accessify Forum), but when organisations think getting a headline is more important than actually reflecting the state of play, it shows that they are, at best, paying lip-service to disability.

What to do?

So for all you out there reading this, I’ve got a challenge for you, for now until BADD 2010. Every time you see someone, or some organisation talking about equality, don’t just take their word for it. At least scratch the surface and see whether it is something they are actively doing, or if they are just paying it lip-service.

And where you find it’s just lip service, publicly upbraid them for it. As public as you like. You don’t have to restrict it to disablism, if you like, but let’s ensure that people who tell us all that they are campaigning for equality actually are doing it, instead of just picking up the acclaim without the effort…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

37 Comments to Lip-service equality (BADD 2009)

  1. Gary Miller says:

    May 1st, 2009 at 2:48 am

    Thought-provoking piece Jack, well done!

  2. James Coltham says:

    May 1st, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Excellent piece Jack. Like you, I was frustrated by the SOCITM Better Connected report and the fact that the important message, which came from the RNIB’s findings, was largely ignored.

    There is a huge difference between ‘talking about’ accessibility and ‘doing’ accessibility. It is up to us all to make sure that words become action.

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