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Disability as a Social Problem in the UK’s History Essay

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Updated: Jul 13th, 2021

A significant number of people in the social structure is comprised of ones with disabilities. In connection with the scale of the disabled part of the population, problems faced by people with impairments are gaining more discussion. That is why disability as a social problem has scientific and practical relevance and needed to be studied. First of all, the essay will discuss the European history of disability from the time of the ancient world to the 1950s. A brief historical analysis of the European disability policy of the selected period is needed to show what determined and directly influenced the development of the current disability policy in the UK. Secondly, it will consider critical factors that identified a framework for the current disability policy of the country. Finally, the essay will critically look at the various fields of national policy on disability in the UK, such as education, employment, living situation, decision-making, and sexuality. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the UK’s policy on disability through historical and critical perspectives.

European History of Disability

Disability is a condition in which a person, due to his or her physical or mental state, loses the ability to perform normal functions. A disabled person is a person who has a disorder of body functions caused by diseases, the consequences of injuries or defects, leading to a limitation of life, and creating the need for social protection. Having an impairment that is a loss of physical or mental function has always been part of a human, and there have been disabled people in every culture and time. In the days of ancient times, physical perfections and intelligence were the core values of society. During this period, conditions for life for disabled people were appalling. According to Penrose Jr. (2015, p. 502), “Greeks did not perceive a category of physical disability in which people were a priori banned from carrying out certain roles and compartmentalized into others.” Most people with disabilities suffered throughout life. The situation was different at the times of Jesus Christ, who motivated people to be compassionate to others. However, the idea of disability as a spiritual or moral condition spread over time.

During the Middle Ages of European history, many people were convinced that physically challenged people deserved what they got. According to Stiker (2019), disability was considered a defect by moral lapse or sins. Those who had a physical or mental defect lived at a low quality of life because they were considered a problem for society. In the Renaissance time of Europe, disability was seen as a medical issue, and numerous medical discoveries were achieved. People were interested in science, and therefore, there was progress in health care. A physical defect was no longer seen as a result of God’s preference but as a biological deficiency of a human body. Disabled people became objects of study and were used in medical experiments.

In the 18-19 centuries, some people believed in phrenology – a science developed by Franz Joseph Gall. It is important to note that “the main concept of the subject is that the brain is made up of functional parts that cause the overlying skull to protrude outwards, enabling mental capability or traits to be predicted by identifying skull shape” (Bilal et al. 2017). Proponents of the theory were convinced that the skull’s shape determined moral and intellectual characteristics.

During the 20th century, the treatment of disabled people was controversial. On the one hand, a person with a disability had no rights and no privacy in most cases. Advocacy of people with disabilities was based on the medical model according to which a disabled individual had to be “under direct authority of the medical profession in rehabilitation programs or institutional carehelp” (Haegele and Hodge 2016, p. 195). At the time of Nazi Germany, from the 1930s till the 1940s, many people with impairments were subjected to euthanasia.

On the other hand, since the 20th century, advocacy of a disabled part of the population had become more organized. The two World Wars disrupted lives, families, social understanding, global economies, and produced a great many people with impairments. As such, attitudes towards people with impairments softened, and ‘society began to view the treatment of disabled people as a community issue. Social institutions started calling for services for people with impairments when people began to understand that many people had mental or physical defects. The view that it was the state that had to be responsible for people with disabilities was widespread.

Policy on Disability in the UK

In the second part of the 20th century, disabled people began to form groups to share experiences and support each other. One such group was the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), established in 1974 (French 2017). According to French (2017, p. 9), “this paved the way for the development of the social model of disability which is at the intellectual heart of the disabled people’s movement.” Under the social model, disability is not an impairment of a person, but an obstacle that arises due to society. It means that difficulties for people with disabilities are created by a society that does not provide them with participation in general social activities. The model calls for the integration of disabled people in the surrounding community. It includes the creation of an accessible environment, as well as employment support. Since the 1970s, the social model of disability has become a pillar of the UK’s policy on disability.

Nowadays, two primary documents in the country define the rights of disabled people. The first one is the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 that has been passed into law thanks to years of campaigning by disabled people. It should be pointed out that “since the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), advocacy for disabled people has become a greater priority in most institutions” (Samuels 183). For the first time, it was illegal to discriminate against disabled people in areas of life, such as work, education, and transport. It changed the lives of many of the disabled people involved forever.

The second crucial piece of legislation is the Equality Act of 2010 that has contributed significantly to the progress regarding the policy on disability in the UK. According to Fell and Dyban (2017, p. 188), “the Equality Act 2010 appeared as a renewed effort to counteract discrimination in a wide range of social settings, although it could be argued that it is particularly relevant to discrimination suffered by people in employment.” The law imposed obligations on employers to create comfortable working conditions for employees with disabilities.

Critical Perspective on the UK’s Disability Policy

Disability and Education

Nowadays, the UK’s educational system is based on inclusion for children with special educational needs. Inclusive education is a learning process, which implies the availability of education for all children, taking into account all the requirements of particular students. There are a significant number of educational organizations in the UK that carry out the learning process for students with disabilities. This has been made possible by the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice published in 1994 and the Disability Act of 2001. The first one has introduced the concept of inclusion and, according to Gibson (2015, p. 877), the term “quite swiftly became tantamount to a government mantra”. The second act states that children with special educational needs should be educated on an equal footing with other children in public schools, provided that parents want this, and the interests of other children are not violated.

Emerson Green primary school of South Gloucestershire is an example of the realization of the idea of inclusive education for disabled children. The school was opened in 2011, and the authority wanted the school to have a resource space for students with disabilities or visual impairment (Inclusion Working in 2015 – Primary School 2015). The school now provides equal opportunities, and every single child has the right to a decent education. Students with a disability have a teaching assistant who helps them to communicate with teachers and other students. Non-disabled and disabled children may play together on a playground.

Disability and Employment

Such trends as the decline of birth rate, population aging, and the growth of marginalized groups unable to perform labor functions demonstrate the need to activate all social resources, including persons with disabilities. There is a controversial situation regarding employments opportunities for disabled people in the UK. On the one hand, there are various employment programs in the UK, for instance, “Workstep”. It is a subsidized employment program funded by the government. It aims to provide jobs for people with complex disabilities who may subsequently take part in unsupported employment. Its funding can be used to obtain other long-term employment services in the open labor market, including payment for the services of job counselors, curators, and on-the-job training.

On the other hand, nearly half of people with disabilities are not involved in the labor market. According to Powell (2019, p. 3), in April-June 2019, “4.1 million out of 7.7 million of the UK’s disabled part of the population were in employment”. The video No Go Britain: disability employment gap tells the stories of Zoe, Daryl, and other disabled people who are one of the thousands of disabled people in the UK that are actively looking for work. They have applied for over more than a hundred jobs with no success. When Daryl removed the word ‘disabled’ from his CV, he got an interview for a job (No Go Britain: disability employment gap 2016). The situation shows the importance of the word ‘disabled’ and how employees are scared of it. The case demonstrates that disabled people are as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people in the UK.

Disability and Living Situation

There are both positive as well as negative aspects concerning living conditions for disabled people. On the one hand, there is a program Supported Living ensures that people with disability have the opportunity to live independently as they possibly can (Supported Living for people with disabilities 2019). The program provides residential accommodation for disabled people where they can live together under the care of qualified professionals.

On the other hand, “a substantially higher proportion of individuals who live in families with disabled members live in poverty, compared to individuals who live in families where no one is disabled” (Official Statistics Disability facts and figures, 2014, para. 4). Most disabled people do not have a choice to live independently.

Disability and Decision-Making

The decision-making process in the UK is based on the Mental Capacity Act (MCA) of 2005. It provides the legal framework for acting and making decisions on behalf of individuals who cannot make decisions for themselves. Using the Mental Capacity Act in the Community (2017) demonstrates the document’s application in practice and proves that it can protect the rights of a person with a disability. The documentary video shows that people who have been diagnosed with impairment or disturbance of their mind or brain have the right to plan for their future. If a person is deemed as lacking the capacity to make a specific decision, the professional involved has to make the best interest decision on their behalf. This best interest decision must follow the best interest checklist, which takes into account the known and passed wishes, feelings, and beliefs of a person. Examples of disabled people presented in the film demonstrate that the UK’s citizens with disabilities can influence the decision-making process.

Disability and Sexuality

In the UK, disabled people of marriageable age have a right to have sexual relationships, marry and have children. According to the MCA, a person with a disability has a right to decide if he or she has the mental capacity to do it. The principle can be applied to decision-making regarding sexuality. However, there is a case proving that results obtained by the MCA’s assessment do not always coincide with the true desires of people with disabilities. Daniel Drayton and Sarah Thompson Drayton wanted to get married, but they could not because of the decision of the local care services. Social workers decided that the bride was not able to make a conscious decision about marriage, as she had a learning disability. According to Ryan (2014, para. 11), “professionals fear being tied into the consequences if something goes wrong in a relationship.” The case shows that the assessment tool cannot provide reliable information, which resulted in the violation of the disabled couple’s rights.


According to the research results, considerable progress has been made on the disability policy in the UK. The leading approach regarding people with disabilities is inclusion, which implies the integration of disabled people in the “common” social infrastructure based on the principle of a barrier-free environment. The approach has been successfully applied in the field of education and living situations. Moreover, significant progress has been made by the MCA on supporting the decision-making of people with disabilities. Nevertheless, it is necessary to review the policy on relationships and sexuality policy. There is also a need for socio-economic realization of the labor potential of disabled people in connection with the demographic trends of recent years. So far, almost half of the disabled part of the UK’s population is unemployed, and many people have difficulty in finding jobs due to because of bias. In general, however, disabled people have ceased to be a “closed” community, and their problems are widely discussed. The inclusion and integration processes of such people with disabilities are intensifying at the national levels.

Reference List

Bilal, M. et al. (2017) ‘Johann Gaspar Spurzheim: A Life Dedicated to Phrenology’, Cureus, 9(5), doi: 10.7759/cureus.1295

Channel 4 News (2016) Web.

Fell, E. V., and Dyban, M. (2017) ‘Against Discrimination: Equality Act 2010 (UK)’, The European Proceedings of Social & Behavioural Sciences (EpSBS), 19, pp. 188-194.

French, S. (2017) Disabled people and employment: A study of the working lives of visually impaired physiotherapists. London and New York: Routledge.

Gibson, S. (2015) ‘When rights are not enough: What is? Moving towards new pedagogy for inclusive education within UK universities’, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(8), pp. 875-886.

Haegele, J. A., and Hodge, S. (2016) ‘Disability discourse: Overview and critiques of the medical and social models’, Quest, 68(2), pp. 193-206.

Hounslow and Richmond Community Healthcare NHS Trust (2017) Web.

(2014). Web.

Penrose Jr., W. D. (2015) ‘The discourse of disability in ancient greece’, Classical World, 108(4), pp. 499-523.

Powell, A. (2019) ‘People with disabilities in employment’, Researcher paper 7540, London: House of Commons Library, p. 20. Web.

Ryan, F. (2014) , The Guardian, Web.

Samuels, J. (2016) ‘Response to Chapter 12 A Collective Responsibility: Making Museums Accessible for Deaf and Disabled People’, The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-First Century. Aldershot: Ashgate Press, pp. 183-195.

Stiker, H. J. (2019) A history of disability. University of Michigan Press.

Worcestershire County Council (2019) Web.

World of Inclusion (2015)Web.

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