The hierarchy of disability

<Editor’s note: Aberdeen Action on Disability regard all of our service users as equals. If we can help, we will help, regardless of who you are or the severity or cause of your condition.>


How disabled people see themselves, and how people in society generally see them, is a very complex and difficult area for anyone to understand, far less study. Some brave researchers have come up with academic studies though. They have named this area of study The Disability Hierarchy.

The disability hierarchy describes how people of varying disabilities are accepted or not in our society and culture. It is clear that the disabled themselves, our representatives, Government, MP’s, health workers and professionals, all use a visual or unwritten “ table” to differentiate between different classes of disability.

This extract from an academic study refers to that concept.

“The results of this study indicate that the type of disability significantly affects attitudes toward persons with disabilities. The preference for mentoring people with physical disabilities (e.g. broken arm) over persons with psychiatric disabilities (e.g. schizophrenia) is consistent with the socio-cognitive model of stigmatization”


(Corrigan et al., 2000).

Take for example a young fit soldier, who has stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. He loses his leg below the knee, and becomes an amputee. With very supportive charities behind him, the best of prosthetics and psychological support, ensuring a strong fit mind, he will win the hearts and minds of the public. After all, he was a hero, doing a soldiers work, and now he is out, being a hero again in extreme sports or raising money for his charity, and he can most likely find suitable work that will not hold him back. Nobody has a problem with that sort of disability. Everybody can see his disability, and can admire his ‘fight’ against his trauma.

What if though, a soldier does not become an amputee, but is mentally scarred by just being in the battle arena? He comes home suffering from PTSD and can’t cope with life. His wife or partner find his disability hard to cope with in the extreme. So the soldier takes to self–medication through alcohol, and his problems just escalate. Suddenly, this battle–scarred warrior is not ‘worthy’ of the sympathy of the public. He is no longer manly, strong and taking the odd drink to help him relax. He is becoming an alcoholic. He loses the admiration of the public when he stops being a hero and takes to drink or drugs. In the eyes of society he is becoming weak and falling prey to his own demons. His mental illness is veiled by his self–medication. In the hierarchy he was at one time admired because he was just doing his job.

The further that folk’s memories get from a war, and the older and less soldier-looking a disabled warrior gets the lower he will score on the hierarchy.

Is that soldier, somehow more worthy of approval because he was “doing a heroic job” and incurring unseen mental trauma? Whereas the victim of sexual assault, road traffic accident, major disease or having been involved in large scale natural disasters, either as a victim or rescuer , might well be caused mental or physical trauma. Any person can be affected by these circumstances, even the most strong–minded or pragmatic of us.

This hierarchy is not about what makes people uncomfortable, it is about what makes people comfortable in their acceptance. This hierarchy is dynamic and fluid, and not exclusive or limited to systems of belief, ethics, or how we perceive gender, and our own prejudices.

So how comfortable did you feel when the troops returned from the Falklands? Did those severely burned soldiers like Simon Weston make you less comfortable?

How would we have reacted had the PTSD amputee soldier for example, had been a woman on the front–line- who just happened to be homosexual? Would we have more sympathy toward a good upright heterosexual woman, with a job, who is brutally raped? Or on the disability scale, would the same trauma suffered by a sex–worker somehow be of less value?

Thousands of people will have varying degrees of physical and mental trauma, terminal and life –long conditions, and who are all in some way disabled, and living with their condition on a daily basis.

The result of this comparison of scale of disability is that society finds particular disabled people more acceptable than others.

Being disabled does not exempt the disabled themselves from the prejudice or judging the scale of someone else’s disability or whether they are worthy of help, charity, or sympathy.

This article seeks to explore, through the literature, the notion that a hierarchy of impairment exists from the perspectives of both disabled and non-disabled people. The literature suggests that disabled people, like non-disabled people, do not always wish to be associated with other impairment groups for a variety of complex reasons, including competing for scarce allocations of funding/resources, sexual attraction, stigma, etc. The article concludes that further research is required in relation to disabled people’s attitudes toward other disabled people, in general, and other impairment groups. Such research would expand our knowledge with respect to the degree to which disabled people view themselves as a homogenous in-group, as a set of separate impairment groups, or viewing impairment as only one facet of identity. These findings would help the disability movement to achieve greater inclusiveness amongst different impairments”

In his comedy show “Harry Enfield and Chums” the comedian had a character who would take every opportunity to express his richness and ill –gotten wealth. This was usually delivered in a thick Brummy accent as “I am considerably more rich than you” as he waved a wad of money.

Do you consider yourself to be “considerably more disabled”? Can you honestly say that the disability hierarchy is non –existent?


This entry was posted in Opinion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *