I had dinner at the weekend with a friend who was explaining the shift in culture towards disabled people. My friend is disabled by MS and was explaining a shift from:

Medical (Poor you – there’s something wrong and we can’t ‘fix’ you – you are an unlucky victim)

to

Personal (You must take responsibility for ensuring that you can participate in society – it is still your responsibility to ask for help when you need it)

to

Social (Society must take responsibility for ensuring equal access – it is society that has the problem, not you, and should change to accommodate you).

Now, this is very interesting indeed, as it resonated with a conversation I had with one of the teachers at my daughter’s school, following a school trip.

Where does individual responsibility stop?

whitewheat.gifDaughter 1 (our coeliac) went away for 5 days on a school residential. I talked to school about her dietary requirements in advance; both the school and I talked to the hotel. All was under control, and I sent the usual range of gluten free products for her.

It turned out that although the hotel did manage her diet very well – I have no complaints at all about them – my daughter was too shy, aged 11, to ask for her bread to be refreshed. (In case you don’t know, the gluten free bread that we get on prescription usually needs heating to make it edible. I could have sent fresh bread, but after 3 days it would have been blue and furry). She relied on her friends and on the school staff to ask for this to happen.

The teacher who had organised the trip had commented that the hotel, which specialised in hosting school trips, and which advertised that it could handle special diets, should have been more proactive in making sure that my daughter wasn’t singled out as being different by having to ask for help. I replied that my daughter is used to being different and should have been able to ask for this to be done for her. The teacher’s position was that society (represented in this case by the hotel) is moving towards seamless provision for special needs, and my daughter shouldn’t need to feel different.

So here’s a question: Do you think of having to be gluten-free as a disability?

I don’t think of my daughter as disabled, but she clearly does have special needs due to a medical condition, and does have some foodstuffs provided for her by the National Health Service.

And here’s another question: Am I old-fashioned in thinking that individual responsibility is important here, rather than provision by society?

Should my daughter expect society to change so that she isn’t made to feel ‘different’? Am I wrong to think that she should take responsibility for her own needs? Am I being discriminatory?

I know that this is trivial compared to the huge difficulties many people face day to day by virtue of being ‘different’ – but the underlying philosophical question is the same. The answer, of course, may be different depending on the degree of disability.

What do you think?

(And here is a link to the Coeliac UK position on living gluten free and disability discrimination …)