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Why do people say they're not disabled when they are?

Damon Rose Damon Rose | 12:01 UK time, Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius doesn't see himself as disabled

Ricky Gervais' new series Derek starts tonight. Gervais says his new character is not disabled, Damon Rose looks at those who we would call disabled but who say they're not.

Comedian Ricky Gervais used a lot of energy last year trying to tell an unconvinced Twitter audience that the word "mong" has nothing to do with disability. Soon after, a similar discussion arose when he introduced his character Derek on a pilot aired on Channel 4. Lots said that Derek clearly had learning disabilities but Gervais said he was portraying someone who is innocent and child-like - not disabled.

The phrase "I don't consider myself disabled" is one we often hear, though not from a comedian who is abled bodied. Unusually we hear it from people who we judge to be disabled, even if they say not. So why is this?

Accessibility consultant Tracey Proudlock says that many who have the right to call themselves disabled, choose not to. She says: "I think it's anxiety and fear because everything around them tells them that to say they've got a disability, leads to bad things like unemployment."

Double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, is one of many who have used the words "I don't see myself as disabled". Successful (disabled) business people, Paralympians, school kids who've won prizes, we often see them featured in the press saying things like this, and the press love to report on their counter intuitive pluck. The press, you fancy, also want to believe it.

Being associated with the D-word rarely brings positive outcomes, so when they can, many disabled people distance themselves from it preferring to focus on other aspects of who they are.

Tracey Proudlock says this is understandable but finds the "see the ability, I'm not disabled" attitude as frustrating when coming from those who have achieved impressive things. She says: "They could be incredibly useful in my work promoting inclusion, they could be really inspiring to young people who have high access needs. So for [disabled achievers] to say 'I'm not disabled' is disappointing."

You can opt in or out of a disability identity, the boundaries aren't clear. Official forms always ask if you "consider" yourself disabled, implying perhaps that it's a state of mind. Indeed the government may be hoping that disability is a state of mind, something you can be shifted away from with help, as part of its ambitious drive to get disabled people back to work.

Perhaps the most noteworthy person who won't put himself in the disability bracket is the head of the Paralympic movement, Sir Philip Craven. He's a wheelchair user and "loathes" the word and its unspoken meanings. Before the Games he said: "Someone said to me recently that [disability] is very much a political word for differentiation." He says it doesn't normally need to be used.

Derek may or may not have an intellectual impairment. Gervais says he doesn't and the larger than life Craven would probably have sympathies as he strives for equality and respect. But if the comedy drama had conceived Derek as disabled, and said so, the programme would have to be a different beast.

"It would make it far more complex and would have to include things like direct discrimination and exclusion," says Proudlock. But Derek isn't that kind of show.

Avoiding scary words like discrimination and exclusion, cousins to prejudice and hate, are perhaps the main reason for not wanting to explore disability too directly. It smacks of a battle, and where's the fun in that?

• Derek is on Channel 4 Wednesdays at 10pm, starting 30 January.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'd love to comment on this, but the character limit is so small that it's impossible!

  • Comment number 2.

    The term “disabled” arises only when people are compared to each other. Therefore everyone is potentially disabled depending on whom they are compared to. For example, the athlete Usain Bolt is disabled compared to the swimmer Michael Phelps because he physically can’t swim as well as Phelps (and Phelps is disabled when compared to Bolt).

  • Comment number 3.

    My friends don’t see disability they see me but its there all the time for me,we laugh about it sometimes.They respect me but I am not always 'there' and I feel bad. If I hadn’t said about it I wouldn't be writing this.I think that high profile people should identify with disability because it’s hard enough as it is.

  • Comment number 4.

    As a disability advocate, I see nothing wrong is using the words "I am disabled" because it is a reality. There is 'that elephant in the room' that will be addressed whether or not we acknowledge it. (It is unfortunate that these words has taken on a second class citizen type of usage)


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