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Policies And Media Impact On Disability As A Social Problem

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This essay will aim to examine disability as a social problem within society. Disability, defined by the Equality Act 2010, is when a person has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities (Gov UK, 2010). This essay will also discuss the changing ways in which the state has responded to disability as a problem and how policies and laws have been implemented in the 19th and 20th century as a part of this. There will be an analysis on the ideological relationship between the state and the individual based on disability as a whole, and explore historic events which had a huge impact on society at the time.

In the late 19th century, people with impairments became regarded as problematic and unable to meet the requirements of the system within society, and as a result finding themselves excluded from employment and removed from the mainstream of economic and community life (Cameron, 2014, pg 66). In 1834, The Poor Law Amendment Act forced disabled people into institutions as they failed to complete the ‘workhouse test’, they could not seek that relief from being in the workhouse and the test was very unfair, only the ‘able-bodied’ could pass it (Grant 2013, pg 11). It is clear that those ‘able-bodied’ lacked sympathy for those who had a mental or physical disability and it could be said that this attitude was reflected by the government. Having been removed from everyday life, there were no perceived reason to take the needs of those with an impairment into account in the planning of public buildings, schools, houses and transport systems that were built without regard for the needs of the disabled (Cameron, 2014, pg 66). The state lacked the ability to sympathise and failed to act in a way they might have if they put themselves in the shoes of those with a disability. Those in power overlooked many ways in which they could have made a difference and their relationship with the individual at this time simply showed such ignorance. However, this all began to change. Cameron (2014) states that representations of people with impairments were used to evoke pity in the readers of novels by authors such as Charles Dickens. Tiny Tim was a character discovered by Dickens in ‘A Christmas Carol’ who was portrayed to be a young boy with a disability. Sympathy came naturally to readers and this influenced the bigger picture of society, and eventually people began to change their perspectives on disabled people. Obviously, not everyone engaged in these fictional influences but these attitudes spread through society. Disability was eventually being recognised as a social problem that needed addressed but it seems as though society was unsure on where start.

Furthermore, in the early 20th century, those disabled were treated in a way that could be described today as barbaric, but at the time in 1935, it seemed as though a cure for mental health was desperate. People would try anything to help those mentally impaired. Antonio Moniz introduced the ‘lobotomy’ which is a surgical procedure where nerve pathways in a lobe of the brain are severed from those in other areas (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). This ‘treatment’ became a legitimate alternative for serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia and severe depression, with only a 50% success rate, ip0t’s aim was to help those suffering and cure them (Tartakovsky, 2019). It was said by an American psychiatrist Dr. Oseretsky that lobotomies violated the principles of humanity which is quite clearly the case as lobotomies had no scientific basis and most were carried out against the will of many patients (Freeman 2008). It seems that at this time people were desperate to seek out a cure for mental health and to carry out such an extremely dangerous procedure was very unethical, this being an example of how severe those with a disability were treated. Fortunately, the lobotomy was outlawed in 1950 on the grounds that it was ‘contrary to the principles of humanity’, however most would agree that this was too late as thousands of people were to undergo this operation for it to be unsuccessful (Tartakovsky, 2019). The ideological relationship between the state and the individual at this time may have been viewed positively as people will have believed that this method was an attempt to cure mental health. But in fact, it could be argued that the state were uneducated on the harm and effects the lobotomy caused for many people, scientific tests should have been taken before any more lobotomies were carried out to assess whether or not it was actually effective treatment and to minimise the risk to other patients.

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Continuing on, World War Two began and it’s clear that society took a step backwards in terms of taking care and improving the lives of the disabled. Just four years later, another example of how those with disabilities were treated with such immorality is the Nazi persecution during the second war. Adolf Hitler, came up with strategies that aimed to exclude hereditarily ‘unfit’ German’s from the national community, in other words those with a disability (USHMM, 2018). Back in 1939, Hitler believed that those disbaled were ‘unfit’ and were no use to him, so with such cruelty he produced the Nazi Euthanasia Programme which was to kill all people with mental and physical disabilities (USHMM, 2018). Disabled people were perceived to society as though they were a genetic burden to Germany at the time, this treatment was heartless and grievously during the war, Hitler managed to continue with his mass murdering for too long. From a worldwide perspective, there is evidence within these historic examples that the world attempted to relieve those with a disability, but with the outburst of war, Hitler’s actions were uncontrollable and the inequality continued. The Euthanasia Programme was damaging to society and even though the Lobotomy was greatly unsucessful years before it, in theory it was a positive idea in terms of improving the lives of the disabled. People have been treated with such inequality in the past and any resolutions made at the time were not implemented quick enough to relieve this injustice.

As the 20th century progressed and the modern welfare state emerged, the equal rights of those disabled began to grow. Post World War Two, government policies were implemented to assist the lives of the disabled. In 1944, The Disabled Persons Act sets up a quota system requiring employers with 20 or more employees to ensure that at least 3% of their workforce are disabled people. In the same year, The Education Act was put in place to develop mainstream schools so that disabled people can be taught (Grant, 2013 pg. 13). Equality is all about providing everyone with the same opportunities and these policies make a difference to the lives of those with a disability, ensuring that they can receive an education in order to achieve the best they can in life. Also it provides them with a chance to work and earn a living, having a job can have such a positive impact on boosting self-esteem and confidence which is vital for improving mental health. Responsibility here lies with the government after they introduced these policies, it is clear that the relationship with the individual has been enhanced by the positive effects and there’s been an attempt to improve the quality of life for those with an impairment. However, in terms of The Disabled Persons Act there was little effort to penalise employers that failed to satisfy the recruitment target and The Education Act was a success in teaching those disabled but it established a system of segregation within schools (Mercer and Barnes 2004, pg 3). Unless a policy is going to have strict guidelines that can be punishable if not followed, those involved such as the employers are likely to breach this and therefore it being ineffective and not beneficial at all. This, as well as a system of segregation in schools is ultimately feeding this stigma towards disabled people within society, an idea that they aren’t as worthy or as important as those non-disabled and should be separated as a result.

Following on from this, in order for disabled people to have equality within society, this stigma held against them must not exist and gradually it began to disappear. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act was introduced in 1970. Local authorities are given the responsibility of providing welfare services, housing, meals (provided at home or community centres) and adaptations to people’s homes (Grant 2013 pg. 13). The state are taking more responsibility and are ensuring that the disabled are getting that extra care and support they need, and this is one step closer to giving them a better quality of life and a sense of belonging in the community. The ideological relationship between the state and the disabled shows more consideration and this reflects on society wanting to help and aid those who need it. Moreover, focusing away from the government, the media has influenced attitudes and perspectives upon disabled people. Those with a disability and actors playing a character with a disability are appearing more on TV programmes and films. CBeebies’ ‘Something Special’ is a childrens TV programme with its aim to help children with disabilities such as Autism and Dyspraxia but is designed to be enjoyed by all children (BBC, 2020). It improves communication, physical development and social skills which are the foundations for a good quality life. More media influences would be that 59 non-disabled actors have been nominated for an Oscar award who have been playing a disabled character, 29 of these went on to win (Thompson, 2017). History suggests that an Oscar-nominated actor in a physically or emotionally afflicted role has a 50% higher chance of winning an award (Thompson, 2017). This reflects positivity in the real world, and the media is a prime factor which takes some responsibility for removing the barriers to normality for disabled people and clearing up this as social problem. On the other hand, the media stimulates some negative aspects as well as positive ones. It could be argued that this increased chance of winning an Oscar award brings about a sense of pity in a negative way, it encourages people to ‘feel sorry’ for those with a disability instead of trying to normalise disability and treat everyone the same. It’s as if a social segregation still exists, and it’s questionable if those social barriers to normality have actually been broken down or if they are just hidden from the limelight for a while. The social aspect of society is a crucial area that is responsible for making those with a disability feel equal with everyone else but also it promotes the segregation in society contradicting itself and fueling the problem.

Conclusively, from an outlook, there is much evidence to show that from the 19th century to now, disability as a social problem has improved massively. This is as a result of the actions of the state as well as factors such as the media, that have contributed towards making anyone with a disability feel more equal and desired in society. The state have taken responsibility, and used their power to put in policies to create this difference despite the fact that some have been ineffective. The ideological relationship has transformed from those impaired being disvalued and ignored to accepted and seen as a credit to society. Although policies and the media are factors that maintain this stigma towards disability, it is a working process to break it down gradually by normalising disability through certain strategies over time.

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Policies And Media Impact On Disability As A Social Problem. (2021, September 03). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
“Policies And Media Impact On Disability As A Social Problem.” Edubirdie, 03 Sept. 2021,
Policies And Media Impact On Disability As A Social Problem. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Jan. 2023].
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