Equality not awareness

Why disability equality training, and not disability awareness training?

As programme titles, ‘disability awareness’ and ‘disability equality’ training are used interchangeably these days, but I think it’s helpful to know why the two were viewed as very different for some of us a few decades ago. Back in the 1990’s disability awareness training was largely impairment specific, delivered by non-disabled experts often employed by large charities. These charities not only had access to money, but had significant power and influence over local and national government.  This inequality of voice still persists today, and you’ll notice that far greater exposure is given to big charities than grassroots organisations on tv or radio. 

As I found out after delivering disability awareness training myself for a while, equality programmes are more intentionally framed as a response to the unfair power held by non-disabled professionals. Indeed, disability equality was formalised to articulate the voice and the interests of disabled people, as put forward by campaigners seeking to secure accountability in a storytelling that articulated fight for equal rights (Morris, 1995). Disability equality focuses on the institutional discrimination and the structural inequality that drives bias and prejudiced attitudes. a disability equality programme will therefore allow an exploration of culture that is pan-impairment. [Rather than highlight individual differences, it addresses the specific characteristics of disability discrimination that affect some disabled people more than others, while demonstrating respect for identity choice.]

When I was introduced to disability equality, and the Social Model more specifically, it changed my work radically – and my life forever. Simulation, private matters and personal achievement went out the window. I began to tell our story, a radically alternative storytelling, and to frame my own experience within the wider context of the Disabled people’s movement. This storytelling, and a shared knowledge, was far from academic in those days. Yet, I was keen to be part of a conversation begun years before me, by disabled activists refusing to be silence. This meant presenting the societal oppression imposed on the disabled population, then disablism now ableism, as akin to sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, agism, religious intolerance… The books came much later, and my library was slow to grow, but 2 decades later I’ve joined a few dots between lived experience, academic theory and civic protest. I still speak ‘in the streets’, to paraphrase hooks, I fear a conversation that is only to be held within the walls of universities.

I use disability ‘equality’ to place the interests of the disabled population firmly at the centre of organisational accountability, responsible business, and sustainable development. I encourage people to embed an understanding of structural ableism in their organisational storytelling, the way they would sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and racism.  By framing the challenge as dealing with barriers and attitudes in the workplace, not with disabled individuals, this allows the training to provide definitions for inclusive practice more widely. With the emphasis that disabled people are those facing a problem, rather than being a problem. In terms of the Sustainable Development Goals, disability equality training aligns with the social and environmental implications of climate change and global inequality. Critically the trainings is led by disabled people, their groups, networks and communities – D/deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations, for example.  If I seem intransigent, please believe I’m less radical than I was. There’s a plentiful blend of excellent training out there, and I applaud those tackling this mountainous issue. This is but my perspective, not an unique truth. 

The  very good news is that disability equality offers a triple gain for every organisation, more than a cost cutting exercise, it offers a much needed language to act on a cultural change that is priceless. Simple wins, straightforward and evidence based, accommodation and reasonable adjustments are strategic gains. Because, to understand the stereotypes and how they unconsciously affect word and behaviour, means we are able to break the cycles of harm imposed on disabled people and many others. With disability equality comes new insight and the power to make change happen is an individual step towards inclusive practice and change for a better society.

As I stated in my thesis:

The articulation of equality is critical I think, because previously impairment training had largely been delivered by non-disabled professionals, and or those with medical expertise or academics from clinical disciplines (Campbell & Gillespie-Sells, 1991, p. 4). Formalised in 1985 by the ‘Disabled Trainers Forum’ (Barnes, 1991, Section 2 – online text has no page), Disability Equality practitioners had a personal experience as disabled individuals, giving them a proximity to experience, but also an understanding of group politics [interest] and theory – the social model of disability as a tool (Oliver, 1990; Beresford, 2003). The distinction of disability equality therefore, was its perspective- the ideas of the disabled people’s movement. It is not an attack on doctors or medicine, but the extent of their power in the lives of disabled people. As a shorthand, the Social Model encourages us to avoid the specific characteristics of disability stereotypes – that disabled people are few, faulty and needy – and the assumptions linked to the disempowerment enforced (possibly unwittingly) by medical workers or clinical experts (Morris, 1995; Oliver, 2016). (L. Chapman unpublished but available)


Barnes. (1991). Discrimination: disabled people and the media. . Contact, 45-48.

Beresford, P. (2003). It’s our lives, A short theory of Knowledge, Distance and Experience. London: Citizen Press / Shaping our lives.

Beresford, P. (2016). All our welfare: Towards participatory social policy [Kindle Edition]. Bristol: Policy Press.

Campbell, J., & Gillespie-Sells, K. (1991). Disability Equality Training: a trainers guide. London: CCETSW.

Campbell, J., & Oliver, M. (1996). Disability Politics. London: Routlege.

Caradonna, J. (2016). Sustainability: A History. Abingdon: Oxford University Press.

hooks, b. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. Boston MA: South End Press.

Morris, J. (1995). Creating a Space for Absent Voices: Disabled Women’s Experience of Receiving Assistance with Daily Living Activities . Feminist Review, 51, 68-95.

Morris, J. (2001). Impairment and Disability: Constructing an Ethics of Care That Promotes Human Rights. Hypathia, 16(4), 1-16.

Morris, J. (2013, 10 11). Welfare Reform and the Social Model of Disability. Retrieved 4 19, 2017, from Jenny Morris: https://jennymorrisnet.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/welfare-reform-and-social-model-of.html

Naysmith, S. (2015, 12 2). Disabled people face social apartheid, warns human rights chief . Retrieved 01 22, 2016, from http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14119159.Disabled_people_face_social_apartheid__warns_human_rights_chief/?ref=twtrec

Oliver, M. (1990). The Politics of Disablement: A Sociological Approach (Critical Texts in Social Work and the Welfare State). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Oliver, M. (2016). Rewriting history: the case of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Disability & Society, 31(7), 966-968.

Qa Research. (2017). ‘It’s broken her’ – Assessments for disability bene ts and mental health 3. Rethink Mental Illness. Rethink Mental Illness.

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