We need equity – not equality

This article questions whether our attempts to promote an inclusive ‘social’ model of disability has obscured the very real physical needs of disabled users expressed in the alternative ‘medical’ model. Looking in particular at the furore surrounding the word ‘handicapped’ it asks whether there are greater battles to be won.


What’s in a picture? Or indeed, what’s in a sign? Can I invite you to look at the disabled toilet sign which appears in a BBC article – yes, a rather strange invitation. It shows the offending image, which uses the term ‘physically handicapped’. It is this image that evoked feelings of outrage from a Northern Irish actor, Peter Mitchell. To the right of this image is shown the changes made to the sign, following criticism from the disability campaigner.


The sign was changed following criticism by disability campaigner Peter Mitchell

I look and take a second look. Is it just me? Does the disability campaigner see an improvement? The sign on the left (the cause of the original outrage) is one that I as a disabled wheelchair user prefer to the supposed improvement on the right. In their wisdom, the Northern Irish health trust appear to have replaced one inappropriate sign with one that is far worse.

It’s true that disabled people get hung up about signage – and with good reason. Door signs tell us who should enter and equally importantly, who should not. Mixed messages and attempts at being ‘inclusive’ subvert this. The ‘changed’ image dispenses with the offending term ‘handicapped’, yet appears to make it a place for all. Inevitably, the viewer is drawn to the high contrast central image which seems to suggest that it is a general convenience.

So is this a victory for disabled users? For me, and for many others like me, the exclusiveness of a disabled toilet (and indeed a baby changing facility) is important. In our case it provides manoeuvring space. It has strategically located handles that determine whether you are going to get off a lavatory or have to call for help. The height of the toilet basin is lower to allow cross transfer from a wheelchair. All of these features may appear to be simple ornamentations to the unimpaired. To the disabled person, they make the difference between liberation and calamity.

So let’s return to the phrase ‘physically handicapped’. It’s an expression that is no longer accepted in UK parlance. I wouldn’t want to suggest the return of such a phrase. But it’s not an expression that invokes outrage in me. Indeed, many other English-speaking countries continue to use the term.

Quoting Peter Mitchell in the BBC article:

“It comes from mid 17th Century when disabled people were seen as second class citizens, they literally had to beg on the streets with their cap in their hands.”

This observation reflects a popular belief – but in fact it is untrue. Indeed, the term handicapped only became associated with disability in the early 20th century.
The expression ‘handicap’ has its origins in an 18th-century game called ‘hand in cap’. Whilst there were variations in this game, the principles were the same. One person would claim another one’s possession in exchange for something they thought was of equal value. A third person would then act as arbitrator, inspecting both items and identifying which of them had the lesser value. The owner of this item would then have to offer additional coins to “equate” the transaction. This forfeit money would then be put into the hat. The game itself was known to be around in 1653. Today we use the term widely in a sporting context, whereby some ‘handicap’ is invoked to equalise contestants.

Is it just me? I feel that my illness is a very real handicap. It’s a word that succinctly describes my physical situation. I need all the help I can get – whether from other people or from an accessible environment. I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask. In fact, rather than diminishing my own self-respect, I feel that I am giving other people the opportunity to be better individuals. You learn that the idea of ‘independence’ is a social ideal constructed around ‘the ability to pay’. Its what healthy people often strive to do: to live life not having to depend on anybody else. And yet, disabled people soon learn that even with financial independence and an accessible world, we still need other people.

Maybe I’m old school, maybe I’m just world-weary. I can’t get upset about the terminology used on a toilet door when far greater injustices exist. In a quiet moment, I sometimes wish the toilet door said ‘cripples only’ or some other abhorrent phrase, simply in order to deter a casual member of the public from ‘nipping in’.

This is more than simply replacing words to make politically correct texts. For sure, we have an ongoing battle with the minds of others. But the battle is not just one of semantics. It is a battle played out every day in the physical world. It is not just about equality, it is about equity.


Please leave your own thoughts – even if you’re the first one!

2 thoughts on “We need equity – not equality

  1. I totally agree with all your main points in this post, but I feel that I must make the case for those of us like myself who need to use the disabled WCs even though we might not be using a wheelchair. Many, or even most, toilet facilities are unusable by those of us with mobility issues that affect our ability to sit down and get up again from a low seat, especially in a confined space or with loose fitting toilet seats. I appreciate your assertion, “The height of the toilet basin is lower to allow cross transfer from a wheelchair”, but in many cases thankfully it is still higher than the normal facilities, and at least has the addition of handrails or the possibility access also of a helper/carer . My greatest wish is for our society to adopt a simple strategy, used in parts of the US I believe, which would hugely improve the quality of life for many people who can’t go out because of this issue; in a row of cubicles make the end cubicle wider and with a higher pedestal, and if there is only one cubicle available ensure that it is at least 18″ high and not the 16″ which is prevalent in many public facilities.


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