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Living with Disability in Contemporary Society


People living with disabilities have historically been viewed as disadvantaged members of society. Until the 18th century, disability was seen by many societies as an expression of witchcraft, demonic possessions, or sin. As such, the disabled person was often ostracized by his/her community (Glowacki (2007: 5). The 21st century has seen a significant change in how people view disability and disabled people have been given significant prominence in societal affairs. These positive changes have been followed by moves towards absolute social inclusion for people living with disabilities. Even so, there still remain significant barriers that impede social inclusion for people living with a disability. Social inclusion refers to “effective participation, both socially and economically by an individual in all aspects of society” (Cabinet Social Inclusion Unit, 2008: 10). Conversely, social exclusion is the process of being shut out from aspects of societal life. Social exclusion can result in disengagement from education and employment by the person living with disability therefore further alienating the disabled person from the community with negative outcomes.

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It is therefore imperative that barriers that result in social exclusion be dealt with to create a harmonious society where contributions are made by people with and without disabilities. This paper will set out to discuss the possible barriers that prevent social inclusion for people with disabilities in the community. The paper shall particularly address barriers that are faced by people with physical and intellectual disabilities. The paper shall then proceed to highlight the strategies that may be used to address these barriers and increase the likelihood of social inclusion for people living with a disability.

Barriers to People Living with Disability

Attitudinal Barriers

Retish and Raiter (1999: 131) describe an attitude as “a learned predisposition to respond in a consistently favorable or unfavorable manner with respect to a given object”. Attitudes influence the manner in which an individual reacts to circumstances and behaves. Our behaviors towards objects are therefore factors of our attitude towards the particular object. Negative feelings about a particular disability or about a person with a disability often result in an attitudinal barrier. Attitudinal barriers are the greatest obstacle to social inclusion by people living with disabilities. Research by Heyne, Schleien and McAvoy (1993) found that fearful negative attitude about people with disabilities was the biggest obstacle to cordial relationships and friendship development between persons with and without disabilities. These findings are corroborated by revelations by people with disabilities that negative attitudes as the most difficult barrier they have to overcome. Glowacki (2007: 6) suggests that the attitudinal problem that currently exists is from the tendency to blame individuals for the physical, psychological, and social outcomes of their impairment. This blame arises from placing the person’s disability or inability on focus, therefore, forcing the disabled person to view themselves as a function of their impairment.

Pity is the other attitudinal barrier that is prevalent in Australian society. This attitude is further accentuated by the charity approach which is characterized by depicting disabled people as “the most needy, the most pitiful and reinforces the tragedy and indeed catastrophe of disability (Newel 2004: 2). While the charity approach is effective in raising funds to help initiatives by disabled people, the outcome of pity is adverse to social inclusion. The pity mindset is against inclusion since it portrays disabled people as lesser members of society who are in need of the help of non-disabled people. People with disabilities are therefore seen as different and dependent on the non-disabled. Inclusion values the differences that are there among individuals and recognizes the valuable contributions to society that each person makes.

Architectural Barriers

Architecture deals with physical access which is the most tangible aspect of modifying spaces and facilities to accommodate persons with disabilities. Historically, buildings, grounds and services have been designed without due consideration being given to the unique needs of disabled people. Jenkins and Pigram (2003: 3) note that while these practices were not deliberately discriminatory since designers did not intend to obstruct a person with a disability from being included, this non-consideration creates a barrier. Architectural barriers result in persons with disability being unable to navigate through certain environments. This is detrimental to the self-sufficiency efforts of disabled people since even at the best of circumstances; some persons with disabilities may require some aid from members of society to perform some tasks.

Architectural barriers are not limited to public spaces but also to the private setting where barriers exist in the homes of people with disabilities and in most cases, it is up to the individual or his family to remove these barriers. Since people with disabilities are overrepresented in the low-income class, removing architectural barriers may be impossible or in instances where it can be done, it may cause a great financial strain on the family of the individual living with a disability.

Government Structure Barriers

While the government has advanced equal treatment for all its citizens regardless of age, gender, or physical inability, this has not been enough to bring about social inclusion. Smith (2008: 4) best articulates this by stating that “equal treatment doesn’t always result in equal opportunity”. Equal treatment does not guarantee that the rights of people with disabilities are respected. Most of the efforts by the government have been geared towards increased welfare policies for people with disabilities. While this is a commendable move, inclusion calls for a greater emphasis on the creation of conditions that foster inclusion as opposed to charity. National Disability Strategy Consultation Report (2009: 5) asserts that service systems need to move away from a welfare model of service provision to an approach that is person-centered and views service “not as charity but as a social investment in realizing the potential of people with disabilities”.

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The government has failed on its part to provide educational facilities that encourage integration. In Australia, the government is responsible for coming up with policies that dictate the provision of education for its citizens. Typically, the choice of the type of education for a disabled child is the decision of the authorities other than that of the parents. A study on disability and Social Exclusion in the European Union revealed that only 9% of those severely hampered and 14% of those hampered to some extent reached university education as compared with 18% for the people with no disabilities (Vardakastanis 2001: 12). The low education rate of disabled people negatively impacts their earning power since it hinders their opportunities to access the labor market on an equal basis.

Measures to Address Barriers

There exist strong links between social exclusion and discrimination and for this reason; persons with disabilities have been the most active social group in articulating a vision that puts social integration at the center of social development. Social inclusion is concerned not only in the provision of better assistance to the people excluded or at risk of exclusion but also to “actively address the structural barriers to social inclusion thus reducing the incidences of social exclusion” (Vardakastanis 2001: 7).

One of the strategies for bringing about social inclusion is increasing the employment opportunities for people with disabilities. A report by the European Disability Forum indicated that “more and better jobs are the key to social inclusion” (Vardakastanis 2001: 32), This is because increased accessibility to the labor markets by people with disabilities results in diversity in employment which is a significant factor for social integration. As it currently stands, people with disabilities are at a high risk of being unemployed and this may result in their being dependent on welfare benefits. The participation of disabled people in the labor market is not solely related to income generation and independence but also to a sense of belonging to the community. Being able to make income enables the disabled person to be a contribution to society, therefore, increasing the individual’s social status and sense of self-worth.

The provision of inclusive leisure services that provide for the needs of persons with disability is one of the strategies that can be used to increase the likelihood of social inclusion. Traditionally, the majority of the recreation services offered to persons with disabilities are offered in segregated. This results in a minimal number of people with disability taking part in community recreation activities. Retish and Raiter (1999: 128) assert that participation in leisure and recreation activities is an important aspect of life for all members of society. The potential benefits derived from leisure involvement include; reduction of stress, emotional satisfaction and enjoyable social contacts. Persons with disabilities can also enjoy these benefits of recreation activities. Recreational services that offer full participation make it possible for people with disabilities to not only enjoy the same chances as their nondisabled peers but also to use leisure resources to participate in the same community recreation activities and enjoy life in contact with others members of the society. Retish & Raiter (1999: 129) note that people without disabilities often “positively alter their attitudes about people with disabilities as a result of exposure to their presence through joint participation”. Inclusive community leisure services can therefore be a powerful agent for promoting the ideal that the “community belongs to everyone, and everyone regardless of level and type of ability belongs to the community” (Retish & Raiter 1999: 130).

Utilizing technology for the inclusion of individuals with disability is another strategy that holds a lot of promise. Today’s society is increasingly technological and great advances have been made in computer and other mechanical devices. These advances can be used to assist individuals with disabilities to better integrate into society. Assistive technology can be utilized to make up for the functional limitations that people with physical disabilities and mental retardation face. This technology can enhance and facilitate leaning by people suffering from retardation and increase independence and mobility for the physically disabled (Retish & Raiter 1999: 288). While technology does not present a cure for disability or even fully compensate for the difficulties that people with disabilities face, it can assist individuals by improving their ability to integrate themselves into the world.

People with disabilities suffer from decreased functional capabilities which may make them a burden to others. Rehabilitation strategies that maximize the functional capabilities of people with disabilities can help increase the likelihood of social inclusion for people living with disability (UN DESA, 2003: 55). Active rehabilitation involving physical activity and sport can be used as a tool in therapy. Physical activity is based on the premise that an increased physical capacity results in stronger bodies that are able to meet the demands of independent living. For a physical disability such as cerebral palsy which is caused by abnormality of the motor control center of the brain, active movement can help to prevent muscle spasm which could lead to bone deformity and reduced mobility later on in life. Since cerebral palsy cause muscle weakness and insufficient strength to propel wheelchairs, improving functional capacity will improve the quality of life for the individual (Glowacki 2007: 35).

Education is at the core of the social inclusion strategy of most nations. The importance of education as a tool for inclusion comes from the fact that schools constitute the first step towards socialization outside of the family environment for individuals. Research indicates that integrating children with disabilities into mainstream education is a potent way of countering their very high risk of educational disadvantage and social exclusion. By integrating disabled individuals with non-disabled ones, interactions can be encouraged and relationships built. This can help dispel the widespread misconceptions and stereotypes that inform the attitudes and behaviour of nondisabled people towards people with disability. According to Vardakastanis (2001: 28), a majority of disabled children can take part in mainstream education and benefit from social inclusion that is inherent in this. Education systems should therefore be designed in such a manner than they cater for the needs of disabled people.

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The mobility of disabled people is greatly dependent on the removal of architectural barriers. Even so, abiding with universal designs (which is the design of products in such a way that they are usable by all people to the extent possible) may result in additional costs in constructions. The government is responsible for coming up with regulations that make public buildings accessible to, functional for and safe for use by people living with disabilities. The US has an Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 which obligates “all buildings which are designed or constructed with federal funds be made accessible to people with disabilities” (Coppola 2007: 4). Persons renovating older structures can receive government funding to assist with designing in such a way as to allow the best access for persons using adaptive equipment for mobility. Tax incentives have been used successfully to encourage businesses to conform to universal designs. This strategy acknowledges that social barriers are overcome through deliberate integration of people with and without disabilities in community. By giving disabled people access to the same resources and venues as their nondisabled counterparts, integration is fostered with positive effects of breaking down social barriers. Removing architectural barriers by use of universal design benefits all citizens as is demonstrated by sidewalk curbs which not only assist people in wheelchairs but also cyclists and people pushing baby strollers.

Access to legal services is of importance to all members of the society. Socially inclusive legal service delivery is therefore one of the components of an inclusive society. Such a program not only brings about self-empowerment for disadvantaged members of the society but it also promotes community development (Twenge & Baumeister 2004: 27). NACLC (2009: 3) asserts that legal problems can have a devastating effect on people’s lives since legal issues relate to housing, welfare, education and health care. As such, any society that wishes to address the issue of social exclusion must ensure that disadvantaged members have access to the justice system so they are able to have rights to access other services.

Government policies have played a huge role in the move towards inclusion for people with disabilities. In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act (Commonwealth 1993) has encouraged multiple improvements that have significantly increased access to public places and services for persons with disabilities. This act also provides protection from discrimination for individuals with disabilities because of their condition (Australian Human Rights Commission 2011). The Act makes harassment on the basis of disability an offense punishable by the law. Individuals who are related with the disabled person are also protected from discrimination as a result of their relationship with the person with disability. Local governments particularly have been marked as having both the capacity and unique opportunity to champion inclusion. Glowacki (2007: 21) articulates that the Local government acts across a broad range of operational areas and can provide the necessary services for people with special needs. Government policies can influence the education needs of children with inabilities. The local government can also advocate businesses and property owners to make necessary improvements to have their physical location accessible to people with disabilities.


Many countries have come to the realization that persons with disabilities can become productive members of society and live successfully within community-based residences. As a result of this, past policies which encouraged segregation and isolation when dealing with disabled people, have paved way for policies that emphasis inclusion and integration. Despite this, the National People with Disabilities and Carer Council (2009) notes that while the large institutes that historically housed people with disabilities are closed and Australians with disabilities can now live freely in the community, many people with disabilities are still forced to live a life of exclusion and isolation. This is mostly as a result of social barriers which still exist in the society. Social barriers such as attitudinal barriers are more difficult to remove since they cannot be legislated against in the same manner that physical access can be made mandatory. Even though anti-discriminatory legislation exists in Australia, there are no laws that force people to become friends or invite people with disability to activities. Addressing these issues is the key to achieving social inclusion.

This paper has proposed a number of strategies that can be used to achieve social inclusion. Developing a social inclusion strategy ensures that the barriers that prevent an individual from participating socially and economically in society be removed. In order to foster the occurrence of inclusion, all types of barriers have to be addressed simultaneously. For example, unemployment among disable persons is a factor of prejudice of employers, the lack of education and lack of adaptation of the working environment. As can be seen, the problems are interrelated and for inclusivity to be fully realized, all the issues must be addressed. Newman et al. (2007: 11) asserts that explicit attention ought to be paid to the structural and institutional causes of exclusion if progress is to be made. This paper has articulated some of the strategies that if effectively addressed can help overcome barriers therefore bringing about the social inclusion that would be beneficial not only to people with disabilities but the entire society.


This paper set out to discuss the possible barriers that prevent social inclusion for people with disability and the strategies that can be used to address these barriers. The paper has highlighted social barriers and in particular attitudinal barriers as the biggest obstacle to social inclusion. Architectural barriers and structural barriers by the government have been articulated as the other barriers which impede social inclusion. Overcoming these barriers is the key to the efforts of bringing about inclusiveness. To conquer attitudinal barriers, this paper has suggested integrating disabled and non-disabled people through sports and recreational activities. The concepts of “universal Design” have been highlighted as the essence of a barrier-free and accessible environment which facilitates inclusive interaction.

Removing barriers to inclusion is a continuing task and those barriers that cannot be tacked at the present may become removable at a later date. By implementing the various strategies articulated in this paper, we can create a barrier-free, accessible and user-friendly environment that is ideal to create an inclusive society. Such a society will promote the freedom and independence, and respects for all individuals regardless of their abilities.


Australian Human Rights Commission 2011, About Disability Rights. Web.

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Jenkins, J. & Pigram, J.J. 2003, Encyclopedia of Leisure and Outdoor Recreation, Routledge.

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