Monday, September 11, 2006

Liberté, Égalité, Fratenité #3

The other anniversary today is of course the birth of Satyagraha, exactly one hundred years ago today. Satyagrapha was the method of non-violent resistance employed by Gandhi and friends against apertheid in South Africa and which eventually suceeded in outing the British Raj from India. The basic principles can be found here, the Wikipedia entry needs some cleaning up. And if you're really keen, you can read the entire book Satyagrapha in South Africa by Mahatma Gandhi on-line at the Official Mahatma Gandhi Archive.

Thought it worth a mention. And so continue my ramblings on the interaction between liberalism and egalitarianism. As I said a few weeks ago, the vast majority of issues facing disadvantaged groups in the UK involve a lack of positive freedom. Today I am going to use the example of disabled people.

It is unusual for disabled people to be enslaved in any way, but most of us have some difficulty being the masters of our own fortunes to the same degree as non-disabled people. In other words, it is not that there is (usually) anybody actively preventing us from living independently, getting jobs, having families and so on. But society often denies us the positive freedom to do so.

I am not talking about some strange utopia where the ladders on fire engines are made accessible for wheelchair-users. However, a related example: The fire-fighter Simon Hawkins did not return to active duties following a below the knee amputation. He regained his fitness, but because of his impairment, it was not considered that he would be able to go back to doing the job he used to do.

Now when I first read about this, I am sure the article I read referenced the Disability Discrimination Act and explained that following the Act coming into play last October, the Fire Service were effectively forced to allow Mr Hawkins the opportunity to prove that he still has the physical capacity to be a fire-fighter. However, I cannot find such an article and I wouldn't want to falsely accuse the Fire Service of being less than enthusiastic about Mr Hawkin's ambitions. But anyway, his family, friends and colleagues raised money for a state-of-the-art prosthetic and he did prove himself just as capable of doing his old job as ever he was. So now we have our first amputee fire-fighter in the UK, perhaps the first in Europe.

That's what I am talking about when I talk about to positive freedom. There was no rule that said amputatees are not allowed to be fire-fighters - there are rules about the physical capacities necessary to be a fire-fighter, but these are perfectly sensible. However, a few years ago it seems unlikely that Mr Hawkins would be even given the chance. But he was, and as a result he is (presumably) doing the job he loves and making a tremendous contribution to society.

Education is another very important issue in the positive freedom of disabled people. Education is one of the most important positive freedoms that exist; rarely are people actively prevented from getting an adequate education, but a failure to provide an education for a person effectively denies them all number of opportunities for personal development, lifestyle choices, income and all sorts, for life. And a lot of disabled people experience exactly that to a greater or lesser extent.

And just being made to feel like you are less than other people, or that your life is worth less than the lives of others is a pretty major infringement on positive freedom. But of course, you cannot directly legislate about how people are made to feel.

So, what to do? One way of solving this would be to take over the country with me as benign dictator, and I could put in all sorts of legislation which would begin to make things fairer for disabled people. Eliminating certain words from our language in the hope of eliminating the accompanying concepts would be double-plus good. Banning certain books and films which portray disabled people in a less than positive light would at least relieve us of The Da Vinci Code...

More seriously, how about positive discrimination which meant that disabled people occupied a representative one in seven posts in government and public service broadcasting? How about vigorous auditing of big businesses to make sure that they are doing everything within their power to employ and serve disabled people? How about moving the Disability Discrimination Act from civil to criminal law, making it a criminal offence to fail to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people?

Draconian rules would be effective, at least in the short term, in massively increasing the positive freedom of disabled people. But at the cost of a disproportional infringement upon the negative freedom of everyone. Society would have missed out on the opportunity for genuine development.

The truth is that at this stage in our history, society does not want to stop discriminating against disabled people. The argument is yet to be won. And coercion does not win arguments.

However, what the Disability Discrimination Act and other existing anti-discrimination legislation does do is to force people to listen to the argument. To me, this represents a tiny chink in our negative freedom which results in a significant increase in the positive freedom of disabled people in the short term and a tremendous increase in positive freedom in the long term. Nobody is forced to employ anybody, but for every disabled person who finds it easier to get a job now, you have another visable example in the workforce of how there’s nothing problematic about employing disabled people. This, in turn, will make it much easier for many more disabled people to get jobs in the future.

Similarly for every other hurdle disabled people face which can actually be touched by such legislation. Eventually of course, these knock-on effects should have supplanted the need for this small print in employment, commercial and planning law.

And this represents the relatively small proportion of the problem we face which can be dealt with through the law.

The rest, alas, is kind of up to us. We have to win the argument.


ben said...

"And coercion does not win arguments."

But i think these types of legislation depend on the premise that a certain amount of coercion does initalize the process of winning the argument. Like you say, it forces the social recognition that an argument is in place.

But I'd go further. I think social change can be (and by definition, has to be) fueled by power. Whether that is state power formally expressed, or cultural power eminating from popular figures and examples...I don't know of a structural difference between social and legal power that would make one sucessful and the other fail.

I guess i fail to see the draconian nature of using criminal law for these ends. We make such moves all the time. Tax evasion, graft, bribery are all social crimes, ones that negatively impact the ability of the society to function. All criminal offences, ones that I would place in the same category as discriminatory hiring. Unlawful contracts for employment are prosecuted all the time.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right, Goldfish, the battle is to get people to listen to the argument in the first place.

All too often it turns out that the discrimination is a result of an unthinking, knee-jerk reaction on someone's part: "s/he isn't capable of this-or-that because s/he is too old/to young/in a wheelchair/blind/deaf/female/whatever" ad infinitum. And the decider usually has no personal knowledge of the condition cited (except perhaps for gender, although I doubt this when I think of some of the seriously dumb excuses given for restricting women's opportunities). Or, worse, the decider is doing what s/he thinks someone senior would want, or think, and often it turns out that the guy/gal at the top has no prejudice at all - they just didn't know what some eager brown-noser in middle management was up to.

Mary said...

But the thing is, right, I am disabled, yes? By whatever definitions used, few people would argue it. Not even the damn benefits agency argued it and that's saying something.

But I have trouble thinking of a job I could effectively do.

I do not have the physical capacity or energy to do anything physically demanding or strenuous. This is a symptom of my illness. No amount of people being understanding or flexible will change this, no amount of legislation or policy either. A physical job then, for me, is out of the question.

So let's think office. I mean yeah, I could put on a suit and trundle off to an interview and someone could assign me a desk and put a computer and some tasks on it.

IF they didn't mind when those tasks got done.
IF they didn't mind me vanishing for a week or two because I couldn't leave my home.
IF they didn't mind that any task I did would have to be checked over by someone, as another one of my symptoms that no amount of understanding or legislation will change is that my brain is NOT reliable and I DO make mistakes, frequently.

Okay, so an office job is out, as they would have to employ two people - me, and then somebody to look after me and check I'm doing things right and actually, why not just pay one person to do it right first time?

Let's scale down to less responsibility perhaps, let's sit me on a checkout. Sitting, and health and safety give me a comfortable chair, and it's not brain-work.

What do you mean, they want to KNOW in advance when I will be well enough to leave my home and come into the building to work, so that they can organise my shift patterns? Wanting reliable employees, these people, sheesh, what next, they'll get upset about the fact I hold up the queue because I get a splitting headache and can't move much less serve people, and they have to pay me to have a headache for an hour, and someone else to look after me, while they're unexpectedly a staff member down... or something.

Do you see what I mean? If someone has the capacity to do a job, they should be considered on equal grounds - if my brain was perfectly fine, I would find it unfair to be not considered for an office position because I had no legs and used a wheelchair.

But if someone doesn't have the capacity to do a job as effectively as another candidate, there comes a point where that needs accepting.

The Goldfish said...


The thing is that, from a liberal position, I want to allow folks as much negative freedom as possible. The reasons I think that's a better way to go about things are the reasons that I believe in liberalism.

Hmm... will ponder this and try to clarify in a later post I think. Not so good today.


I'm in much the same boat and I consider myself unemployable - at least when it comes to any conventional work. I am dopey today, but perhaps this might help. When I wrote about the Social Model of Disability, I quoted a bit from The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebhur;

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

And that sums it up for me; this perspective accepts that there are limitations caused by impairment, economics and sheer practicality which are unmoveable. For people with conditions like ours, these unmoveable limitations are significant. You and I cannot expect to get jobs, for example - at least not through social change; a medical breakthrough or remission may be another matter.

However, there are still ways in which we face obstacles which we do not absolutely need to face. And whatever they are, the problematic attitudes and mechanisms for change are very similar across the board.

Mary said...

That is true and well put, Goldfish.

I think part of it is that a lot of disabled people get as far as "I am disabled by society's attitude towards me and the barriers society puts in my way."

I can only really and authoritatively draw on my own experiences when someone says "so, specifically, what do we need to do? What would it take for you to be able to do activity X? What barriers are in your way? What attitudes do we need to adjust?"

I can come up with half-hearted ideas like, I need to be able to get to and from the place, I need there to be somewhere quiet I am able to sit down and switch off at a moments' notice, I need there to be something I can hold onto in the loos, I need people to not expect that they have a right to my full medical history.

But the real answer is that even if all this were in place, I'd still feel iffy about everything I attempt, until such time as my body and my brain are in better working order.

I thus feel, I don't know, is "schismed" a word? from the group "disabled people" as a whole. Because rather than being a Society Needs To Sort Itself Out Warrior, I'm lying on my bed feeling that the crux of my disability lies with my messed up and unreliable brain and body, and that even in the most perfectly accessible world I would still be disabled. It makes me feel a bit like a traitor, or like I shouldn't have a say on accessibility at all.

Lingual X said...

Hey there,

I wanted to let you know that this post was nominated & selected for the 23rd edition of Carnival of Feminists. You can read the Carnival here at Lingual Tremors. (

If I've made any mistakes, please email and I'll fix it as soon as possible.

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Lingual X