Community psychology and models of disability

grayscale photo of man on wheelchair

Community psychology examines and supports people’s attitudes, actions and thoughts within the social contexts of their lives, supporting marginalised groups to challenge systems, institutions and legislations which oppress and discriminate (Orford, 2008). Additionally, community psychology (CP)  can contribute to the understanding of social issues for both professionals and participants by framing people within their local community (Kagan & Burton, 2005). Taking a holistic approach allows us to understand the multiplicitous contextual factors which affect the lives of over one billion Disabled people across the world. In turn, this changes our understanding of social exclusion created by different perspectives and models of disability (Kagan et al. 2005)

The medical model of disability frames disability as a cognitive or physical issue which afflicts the individual in their everyday life – within this model disability is considered a problem that requires a medical solution (Kavanagh, 2018). This model is inaccurate for several reasons, most notably that Disabled people have ‘defects’ which need to be cured medically for us to live fulfilled lives (Siebers, 2008). The medical model ignores the lived experiences of Disabled people – including Disabled identity and culture – undermining the strengths of the individual and our social environments (Goodley & Lawthom, 2010; 2011). Community psychology, based on values of social inclusion, diversity and empowerment, suggests that the medical model perpetuates the marginalisation of Disabled people. CP also recognises the importance of working with diverse communities and groups and takes seriously the variety of interests, needs and abilities therein (Kagan & Burton, 2004). It opposes the erasure of community diversity, as well as the exclusion, oppression and marginalisation of such people and groups.

Whilst the medical model of disability inevitably homogenises Disabled people, community psychology looks to understand individuals within their own social contexts, using a strengths-based analysis to understand individual and community resources, knowledge and experience (Kagan et al, 2020). However, there remains some access issues to community psychology for some Disabled people, such as those who live at home,  those with more complex needs, and those who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Those who communicate in divergent ways may be misunderstood or may not be given the time to process and respond, they may also have others try to ‘speak on their behalf.’ This can culminate in their needs, interests and expertise being overlooked. Community psychology teams should centre accessibility within every step of their work, which would be shaped best with the inclusion of Disabled people within the initial and ongoing planning of said work. When done well, taking a community psychology approach supports and encourages Disabled self-advocacy.

The social model of disability begins to understand disability as a divergent way of being. Under the social model ‘disability’ becomes a social category which is created by environmental and social factors, including infrastructure and public attitudes. This model has shifted the focus from the individual’s perceived impairments to issues surrounding the individual, including inaccessible services and social exclusion (Kavanagh, 2018). Within this definition Disabled people are not defined by their disability, they are understood as having identities which span the range of human experience (McDonald et al., 2017). Both community psychology and the social model of disability, understand disability as an interpersonal societal issue, as well as an important part of human diversity (Burton et al., 2007; Thomas, 2004). However, the social model erases the physical symptoms which many Disabled people live with (and would continue to do so even in an accommodating world). Disability rights activist and former member of the World Health Organisation, Tom Shakespeare, explains his relationship to his own impairment: ‘‘my problem is my physical embodiment and my experience of negative symptoms arising from impairment’’ (Shakespeare, 2014, p.24). Shakespeare’s experience of chronic pain due to a spinal lesion, suggests the use of a more fluid model of disability which takes both a medical and social perspective based on the lived experiences of Disabled people (Shakespeare, 2014).

Reframing disability as a form of social oppression has highlighted the economic and social disadvantaged faced by many Disabled people. However, much of this work focuses on public experiences, such as inaccessible environments and lack of services, and often dismisses the personal and private experiences of oppression (Thomas, 1999, in Reeve, 2005). Oppression can be intrapersonal, such as living with chronic pain, migraines, seizures etc. Oppression can also be seen implicitly in TV and film, in which Disabled people are rarely portrayed as anything other than our disability. Erasing or othering Disabled people in this manner affects how we feel about ourselves and how others may perceive us. Similar issues can be seen in community psychology practices if psychologists misinterpret or dismiss personal experiences to create utilitarian change. Furthermore, CP cannot be accessible to the unique needs of every potential Disabled participant. As previously discussed, some Disabled people may be ignored or spoken over, not only is this problematic within CP group events, but this can also cause the Disabled person to become less confident in their abilities. Some projects may not be in alignment with, or contribute to, Disabled liberation especially when they are guided by professionals who have little lived experience of disability (Kagan & Burton, 2005). When community psychology groups are not lead appropriately they can unintentionally add to the very stigma they were created to challenge. As always the disability rights movement motto “nothing about us without us” holds true (Charlton, 2000).

Community psychology suggests that disability is constructed by the physical and social environment in which the Disabled person lives (Goodley & Lawthom, 2006). This is reflected in the different models of disability which are simultaneously created and challenged by community psychology, which defines social exclusions as the restriction on individuals, groups and whole communities from meaningfully participating in society (Kagan & Burton 2004). Social exclusion brands Disabled people as non-citizens, who should not share the same rights as our non-disabled counterparts (Goodley & Lawthom, 2010). This non-status strengthens the stigmatisation and marginalisation of Disabled people and our families, especially from professionals who presume to know what is best for our wellbeing. Despite consistent exclusion and lack of choice over our care and education, we are still expected to be active citizens (Hayden, 2007). Thankfully, within community psychology, we are supported in being active participants and are appreciated for our unique range of experiences and knowledge (Goodley, 2011). Within these spaces we are validated as an important part of human diversity, and we are supported to be active agents in issues which affect our lives.

Despite correlations between social models of disability and community psychology, it could be argued that the latter does not do enough to support our understanding of social exclusion. Participants of social action are often privileged by their ability to do so; this often dismisses those with more complex needs. Community psychology may be creating further disparities between Disabled people. Importantly, inclusion is not always inclusive. Despite these contentious issues community psychology does include Disabled people about the very issues which affect our lives. Furthermore, this practice appreciates that there are many strengths and resources within Disabled individuals and the communities in which we are situated. Supporting the meaningful participation of Disabled people to create change in attitudes and policies, can create change for all people within local, national and global communities (Murray, 2005).

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