Identity of Disabled People

Identity of Disabled People: When do you want to be called “disabled people”?

Written by Hisayo Katsui

I am heading for Uganda in the end of January for one month to conduct my fieldworks especially on development cooperation activities. When preparing for the trip, I came across with a very important issue of disability identity that I should pay special attention to. In this article, therefore, I am trying to discuss this issue of identity.

Who are disabled people? The official definition of “disabled people” is diverse from country to country. They are usually based on medical diagnosis, on the basis of which people are entitled to certain services, devices, medications and so on. In Northern countries, the definition is increasingly diversifying as more new diagnosis are found and also because the population is aging. When it comes to Southern countries, the definition tends to be more “classic” ones which include often people with observable sensory or physical impairments. This is one way to look at the identity and possibly the easiest way for a researcher to approach “disabled people.”

For instance, in my last article in the newsletter (No.3/2007), I introduced some figures: “10-12% of the population is disabled people in the world and 80% of them live in the South. Various interventions are going on to support Southern countries to reduce poverty, while disabled people tend to be forgotten in those initiatives. Only 2% of the disabled people in the South get some kind of support.” I had a political intension to attract your attention by using the figures of people who are diagnosed as “disabled people”. This is a useful strategy in disability movement to present the significance and therefore the importance of disability issues in number and magnitude.

However, do they all identify themselves as “disabled people” all the time, which is a totally another question. The identity of any person changes depending on time, place and occasions. For instance, when you are spending quality time with your family, you are perhaps daughter, son, wife, husband, mother or father rather than “disabled people.” But when you are discriminated against when accessing certain services available for others but not you, then you might negatively feel your identity as “disabled person.” Alternatively, you might positively feel your identity as “disabled person” when you are offered equal opportunities with special attention to your needs or even more opportunities. Some people might not feel inconvenience of their impairments when they have certain devices, medications or personal assistants based on their needs. As a result, they might not feel that they are “disabled people” in most of their daily lives. That is, researchers cannot assume and put the label of “disabled people” even if they are technically categorised as “disabled people.”

In UK where disability movement has been strong and disability study is also actively connected to the movement, “disability” has connoted experiences of social oppression and discrimination together with the experiences of impairments. Thus “disability” and impairment have carried negative image. When it comes to gender issues, gender and sex are corresponding concepts: gender is used for socio-cultural experiences of women, while sex is the biological condition of women. Here gender is more comprehensive in the sense that it includes variety of experiences, not only limited to negative ones. (Please read more on this issue in Tom Shakespeare’s book, “Disability Rights and Wrongs.”)

In Southern countries that I have studied so far, discrimination against disabled people are so open and severe that they tend to feel and identify themselves as “disabled people” most of the time. In Uganda, however, I need to pay attention to the more comprehensive experiences of “disabled people” who enjoy affirmative action particularly in politics, while facing stigma and discrimination at different occasions. For instance, there is a disability quota in the Parliament: 5 members of parliaments are reserved for disabled people representing disabled population. In addition, a number of development cooperation activities specifically target disabled population where they directly benefit from the activities while non-disabled neighbours do not. In other words, they might identify themselves as “disabled people” when they are offered such opportunities limited to them. In short, the identity of “disabled people” seems to be quite mixed and needs more nuanced attention in this research.

This whole issue of identity is relevant also in any other context including Finland. Please let me hear from you when you feel that you are “disabled person.” I would like to learn from your experiences.