Europe hasn’t still recovered from the economic crisis and as world governments attempt to deal with the crisis brought about by irresponsible banking companies, the poor and socially excluded risk to fall into further poverty and social isolation. And, as more and more people find themselves unemployed and unable to maintain their former standard of living, there’s a danger that they start questioning whether those groups receiving financial benefits truly deserve to be assisted in the first place.
I can’t deny that I’m concerned because one of the groups that are facing the threat of losing much needed benefits are disabled people. Being a disabled person myself means that even if in Malta (where I live), the recession hasn’t had a negative impact on the level of financial support disabled people get. Having said that, the financial assistance provided by our disability pension still doesn’t meet the demands of the present society and, indeed, was never meant to provide enough financial assistance to live more independently. However, even if I have a right to a decent quality of life and a right to self-determination, for some non-disabled people, we should be grateful for being left to live and shouldn’t expect too much - let alone have a chance to exert our free choices and autonomy..
But, honestly, why do people find it hard to accept that disabled people have an equal right to freedom and autonomy? There are many possible reasons for such attitudes towards disabled people. One of these is the fact that disabled people have been segregated and excluded from society for a long time. Sadly, such exclusion still exists within Europe. The second reason is that given our historical exclusion from society brought forward by industrialization, disabled people (then unable to contribute in a machine operated economy) became more like mythical or fairy tale monsters. This moment when disabled people were dehumanized led to the creation of various misconceptions, such as those which judge our life as “unfortunate”, our economic value as “unproductive burdens” and so on.
I grew up in a society which was slowly moving into accepting the idea that we had the right to be included and treated equally. However, we’re sometimes still expected to make all the effort to conform to a non-disabled world. And while many of us have spent some of our life believing there is something wrong with our minds and bodies, believing that we should become more “normal” to be truly happy and fulfilled. We were never told that, if society accepted us for who we are, then our lives would have been better then. And, whether people accept it or not, our minds and bodies are part of who we are and it had an important role to play in ensuring our true inclusion..
Unfortunately, when people tell me that they consider me non-disabled like them, I don’t know whether to be happy or sad. Because, in a way by forgetting my mind and body, aren’t they really rejecting me? After all, isn’t our mind and body our only means to reach out to the external world? What I want is to be treated equally to others and that doesn’t mean that I want to receive the same treatment. Because, as long as the world is still created for a non-disabled “normal”, we still have to lobby for lifts, information in accessible format, provision of communication in forms such as sign language or augmentative communication and so on. In this sense, treating me equally doesn’t imply treating me the same.
Treating me the same would mean inviting me to a party where the venue is only accessible by a stairs. Treating me the same would mean giving me a book in printed format when you know I have a visual impairment. Treating me the same would mean expecting me to participate in a discussion when I can’t hear what you’re saying because you failed to provide me with a sign language interpreter. Treating me the same would mean expecting me to understand what you’re telling me if you only use difficult words and fail to adapt to my level of understanding which is different than yours. Treating me equally means taking into account of my physical, sensory and intellectual differences and providing me with the means and support to maximize my potential.
Regrettably, I’m concerned that in spite of the progress made to promote inclusion, we risk regressing to a society which would prefer we were locked up in an institution. Even worse, with the cost of maintaining an institutional complex now being financially prohibitive, we may find ourselves earmarked for elimination as we are seen more as “economic burdens” than human beings..
This is not the product of some nightmare I had. The systematic extermination of disabled people did take place in our recent past when the world was also experiencing a recession following the 1st World War when a European country was facing an economic crisis after its defeat in the war.. The country elected a leader who they thought would restore their former glory. The leader? Adolph Hitler. The country? Post-World War 1 Germany. And part of Hitler’s “final solution”? The systematic mass elimination of those considered unproductive, useless and “unworthy of life”. And, slowly but surely, people having an impairment were the first guinea pigs for the gas chambers. But this part of history is hardly mentioned or remembered. The first victims of the final solution.
I wish to believe that history won’t repeat itself. But some countries, such as the UK, are already cutting on disability benefits. Thankfully, here in Malta, we're still unaffected. by austerity measures But, even so, we can’t afford to remain indifferent to thee situation currently facing disabled people across Europe and the rest of the world. We can’t afford to remain silent and retreat to the comfort of our own homes. Otherwise, we can’t say that we didn’t know when we’re find ourselves in a situation where our quality of life deteriorates to a point where even our choices are dictated by others.
And that would be the real tragedy.