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The Politics of Age in the Disabled Community

The concept of “generations” is complicated when you apply it to my community, since it is one of the few marginalised groups you can join at any age.

For example, a twenty year-old born with their condition may have seniority in the community over someone who is thirty-five but became disabled at age thirty. This means that within the disabled community there is a broad range of levels of experience, as well as interpretations of said levels of experience. 

I am a twenty-year-old with a congenital disability, so I have been disabled for twenty years. So, am I experienced in the world of disability? I know how to navigate the healthcare and benefits system, but I am still a young woman, so where does that leave me? I have cerebral palsy, which is usually a congenital disability, as only a small percentage of CP is caused by brain damage that happens more than 28 days after birth.

In terms of my specific disability, I am young in terms of my adult life, but still able to mentor the younger generation in my community. Cerebral palsy is usually associated with younger children, since it is largely acquired either as an infant or before birth. Equally, in medicine, there is the idea of early intervention, so much of the treatment for the condition is focused on childhood. So, according to the medical establishment, I am old, and, in some cases, beyond help. 

However, there is one firm dividing line in generations of the disability community: those who were born before and those who were born after the signing of the DDA. The DDA is what aimed to end the discrimination many disabled people face, giving important protection, including the duty of service providers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people so that they do not face difficulties with access to services.

The signing of the DDA in 1995 was the culmination of radical protests which took place across the UK to protest the unfavourable, but lawful, treatment of disabled people; which used to include refusal of service, lack of accessible housing, and unequal access to education. Hundreds of disabled people occupied inaccessible buildings and chained themselves to public transport to bring attention to how many public spaces were inaccessible to disabled people. These events have been the most revolutionary and impactful on disabled people in the UK, particularly those born after its inception.

The DDA and its subsequent updates shaped my life a great deal. As a result of the mandate for equal access to education, I was able to get a mainstream education with SEN support. It has also been rare for me to experience a blatant denial of service because of my disability or use of mobility aids. More of what I have experienced have been microaggressions, or things that are discriminatory, but difficult to challenge or prove. Whereas, when I think about the tales which the older generation of the community have told me, what comes to mind is not necessarily the severity of the discrimination but the egregiousness of it. I cannot understand how someone could flatly deny service with a straight expression.

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Image by Kampus Production

When thinking about disabled people experiencing discrimination before 1995, the person who comes to mind is my A Level English Literature teacher. She never named her disability, but did talk about what she experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. We were quite similar in that we were both high-achievers with a love of literature and a disability, but I did find her attitude to her disability odd. She seemed to make a conscious effort to downplay it, while I have always been vocal about my disability and how it impacts my life. Occasionally, I thought that she provided a window into what my life might have been like if I was born 25 years earlier.

The story that I remember most clearly is her explaining how she ended up at my school as a student. As a child with a disability, her parents had to sue the local authority to remove her statement, so that she would not be put into special school. Private education was her only access to mainstream schooling. By contrast, it was my lack of statement that caused me problems: without a statement, most of the SEND departments in my local authority felt as though they had no obligation to me. I have to shout about my conditions to make myself heard and accommodated, but she had to minimise them to be taken seriously.

Such encapsulates the divide in the disability community. Older generations have had to understate their difficulties to be accommodated by a world which had no legal obligation to do so, yet the younger have constantly had to prove their disabilities to be granted their legal accommodations. Like most communities, though, both generations would do well to learn from each other: the younger generation needs to learn of our community history, while the older generation ought to be more receptive to the newer ideas surrounding disability identity.

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Image by ELEVATE