At least 10 per cent of the world’s people have a significant, long-term, physical or mental impairment which can and usually does disable them from taking part in the usual educational, social and economic activity in their community. This is due to barriers in attitudes, in the built environment and in the way society is organized, which prevent us from participating on an equal level with others. The reason why most of these barriers exist is because societies have until very recently not recognized that the systematic way in which they discriminate against disabled people, when backed by discriminatory laws and practices of the state, often amounts to oppression. Barnes (1991) gives a full account of the discrimination disabled people encounter in all areas of life. This oppression has developed from our history, from myths and beliefs that attribute characteristics to disabled people which are unrelated to the reality of disabled people’s lives. Such collections of attitudes often determine how non-disabled people respond to the ‘different’ in their midst; how they form stereotypes of the disabled person as saint, sinner, superhero, freak, fiend, victim, obsessive avenger, isolationist, the butt of jokes, just a burden, or someone to be pitied. The particular form of stereotyped thinking depends on the society’s history, its explanation of how it has come to be and the resultant culture.
The dimensions of inequality to do with gender, sexual orientation, ‘race’ and class all interact with disablement to create additional oppressions for those with one or more of these oppressions. However, until very recently, the arguments for disability equality have often been ignored in the development of thinking about equal opportunities. In this chapter, therefore, I will begin by looking at how disablement is defined and modelled. I will then look at the extent of disability, world-wide and in the UK. Next, I will give a brief history of disablement, including the growth of the Disabled People’s Movement and our struggle for civil rights. I will conclude with an examination of stereotypes in the media—images that are continually recycled to maintain prejudice—and at what is being done to counter this.