Are people with a disability still entitled to an identity?

As an older sibling of a child with Down’s syndrome, I have often thought about this highly controversial question. Are the disabled entitled to an identity, even if they are cared for, and may not be able to participate or give anything back to the world? Is my brother any different from me, my other siblings, my peers or anyone else?

Discrimination and unconscious bias against disabled people have been around for hundreds of years, with many believing that it was the result of committing sin or being made to serve purgatory on earth. By at least 1050, most families left the care of their disabled family members to monks and nuns, many too ashamed to keep them at home. In the Victorian Era, the establishment of institutions proved to have a massive impact on the ‘idiots’ that were sent to stay in them, resulting in institutions becoming places associated with lunacy. Furthermore, Charles Darwin’s theory of Social Darwinism proved popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and while accepted by the ‘fittest’, the weak, including the disabled, would have suffered, and would have been seen as a strain on society. The identities of the disabled were suppressed, and their ways of life limited under this new popular ideology, and disability would have greatly defined a person’s life.

In comparison, the society that we live in today is becoming ever more open, especially with the social media boom, in which people are able to share their stories with disability, sexuality or ethnic beliefs freely. Although social media sites, like Facebook, have the potential to be the site of discrimination, many feel they can openly express themselves, conveying and exploring their identity. However, those who are unable to communicate their views are limited in their self-expression, some unable to communicate in even the most basic of forms (eg blinking). This results in a long chain of circumstances which are almost inevitable unless action is taken; for instance, education can become more challenging, which can mean that SEN schools may become the only option, and therefore full-time employment is harder to obtain (only 48% people with disabilities are permanently employed), particularly as academic qualifications will most likely be more limited than at a mainstream school. With the average disabled person not in a sustainable job, and possibly unable to communicate as effectively as a ‘normal’ person, are these people entitled to an identity? Does a potential lack of societal input, and indeed strain on the government (due to providing extra support), fundamentally affect one’s right to be a person? After all, your identity is what makes you a person.

I am of the firm belief that disability does not define a person, and identity is not something that must be obtained or something that we are/aren’t entitled to, merely something that we are born with. Whether disabled or not, possessing an identity is guaranteed (otherwise we would simply not be in existence), and, aside to entitlement, everyone has meaning in somebody else’s life, and that is arguably the most important thing.

Iona, Senior Prefect

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