Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The social model of non-disability

Note: This post is further thoughts from me after reading Anna's FWD article Assistive Tech & Pop Culture: “Miss Smith, without your glasses you’re beautiful!”, so it might make more sense if you read that first.

The "Social Model" of disability states loosely that the major reason that differences between people are disabilities is that society is set up so that one point on the scale of human variation (colloquially and unhelpfully called "normal") is privileged by the way society is set up, and others aren't.

There has been a lot written elsewhere about the (usually relatively small) adjustments that could be made to fix current society so that particular variations weren't disabilities or were less severe.

It was created in contrast to the commonly-used "Medical Model" which stated that the variation itself was the problem (which at its worst justified eugenics, and at its best still did nothing about the underlying social problems). Only some variations are considered a medical problem, of course, and which those are changes from time to time (the history of the inclusion of homosexuality in the various revisions of the DSM, for example).

This post is about the Social Model of non-disability, or at least some examples of it. Human variation that could be a disability, if it wasn't for the fact that our society (well, my society, for these examples) is set up so that it makes virtually no difference.

The hypothetical societies below do of course also have effects on things that are currently disabilities - making some more disabling and some less disabling. I've based the non-disabilities for both from variations that I personally have that aren't disabling in my current society - you might the same variation but find it to be noticeably disabling in your current society: if so, I'm failing to recognise some element of my class or national privilege that makes it that way.

Sense of smell

It's a fair indication of how little UK society actually requires a sense of smell that there isn't a common word or phrase for having a below-average one. "Partially-nosed"? "Hard-of-smelling"? Anyway, my sense of smell is well below average, as far as I can tell - even if I don't have a blocked nose, I can't smell much.

The "Medical Model" symptoms of this are about what you'd expect - it takes a higher concentration of a smell in the air before I notice it, and similarly for tastes.

The actual effects in this society are relatively small. Society is just set up so that a sense of smell is very rarely required. Sometimes the only warning of a gas leak is the smell, but I think that's the only case where a message is intentionally conveyed only through smell, it's a very strong-smelling chemical that's been chosen because of that, and it's not a situation where in general an alternative warning can be given.

Experience means that I can cook food that's good to eat without more than the usual problems. When I'm cooking just for myself, I do put more spices in than most people would consider sensible, though.

Of course, society could be set up to be more difficult for people with a below-average sense of smell. It's such an under-used sense currently that I'm having trouble thinking of examples, though - smell trails ("follow lemon for the southbound line") are possible, as is more explicit use of odours to set the tone of art or speeches (like background music is currently used).

Reading while travelling

I don't particularly like travelling in general, but one thing that makes it particularly unpleasant is that I can't focus and concentrate on nearby objects for very long while doing so without getting headaches and nausea sufficiently strong to make further concentration impossible for several minutes or more.

So, I can't read, or do puzzles, or look at maps, while in a moving vehicle. Fortunately, society is again set up that this isn't that necessary. There are jobs where working on a laptop - or in previous times, pen and paper - while travelling up and down the country on a train is a major part of the job. There aren't, however, that many - it's a sufficiently rare requirement that people almost certainly can avoid jobs that need it.

Now imagine that the prevailing architectural paradigm of the last few centuries had not been "buildings of varying sizes, on the ground, with four walls and a roof, in clusters" but "individual small rooms, raised off the ground on stilts to various heights, separated by some distance and connected by walkways, ramps, and in more modern times, miniature railways". It has lots of advantages - much more garden space, the land below can be used for farming and keeping animals, and doesn't need to be particularly flat to build on - enough that a suggestion of "why not build houses" would be looked at oddly by people used to this method.

Much more travel is needed, as a small village might now loosely span several square miles: over rather than inside its local farmland. The rail networks provide a convenient solution, though - office train cabs with a built-in desk. Get in at the start of the day, and set the destination for your first meeting. The network operator (nowadays, this is mostly all computerised, with a few supervisors, but thirty years ago there were points boxes each with their own operator, and complex procedures to hand-off from one zone to another) will set the points accordingly for you to make sure you get there at the scheduled time. When you get there, your cab moves onto a short circular meeting track, to be joined by the cabs of the other attendees. Unoccupied projector cabs, whiteboard cabs, and so on can be put onto the track as well, or in the fancier meeting-tracks, a separate higher track so that they rotate at a different speed to the meeting and you're never stuck with your back to the screen.

People like me, who can't work on the move, get stuck with a low-status ground job (literally looked down upon), unless we're lucky enough to get a job in one of the few stationary installations. Which, since we spent our entire time in the class-tracks being ill, isn't that likely.

Add in a social moral approval of movement, from the secularisation of a nomadic ancestors' religion, and the ideas of having stationary rather than moving meeting-tracks and class-tracks, and having stopping points with nice views for office cabs, start to get considered "special accommodations" that get in the way of most people's enjoyment of a varied view through their working day, which has been shown to be vital to creativity and efficiency.

The radical suggestion of building compact office complexes, where you could just walk from place to place, is completely rejected. They'd require far too many stilts to be stable, you couldn't place enough windmills on top of something that big to power it without them getting in the way of each other, it'd shade too much ground surface, need lots of flat land, and you'd still have to travel some way to get to it. They'll be suggesting we live in ground cities like our primitive ancestors or foreigners next.

Other variations

So, what other variations, currently either having a neutral or positive effect on your ease of living in this society, or only causing very minor and extremely situational problems, have readers experienced, and in what alternative societies would they be considered (possibly severe, possibly medicalised) disabilities? Leave your thoughts in the comments.