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We need less pity and more dignity

The concept of disability is diverse, but it does not always result in diversity. Disability is complex, and professionals need to be able to navigate through the different definitions in order to provide the best possible help. At the same time, the term ‘disability’ helps define people, and we should actually stop using it, says one researcher.

by Nanna Stærmose

“We need less pity and more dignity,” said Inge Storgaard Bonfils, Fellow at the Department of Social Work at Copenhagen University College. Throughout her long career as a researcher, she has investigated a broad spectrum of issues within the area of disability, including mentally vulnerable people’s connection to the labour market, quality of residential accommodation and people with disabilities’ inclusion and involvement in political processes, to name just a few. As she sprinkles additional tangential insights and points into her answers to the questions posed by the interviewer, it becomes clear that the concept of disability is rife with complexity. That said, there is one issue Bonfils believes is quite simple.

“We need to move away from talking about disabilities and instead talk about people with disabilities, because it’s more inclusive; we all become part of that category sooner or later,” she said.

Bonfils believes it is important to do away with the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset. We need to be able to embrace the complexity and recognise that living with a disability can mean many different things.

“It’s important for us to move away from what we refer to as the medical model. According to that model, disability is a characteristic of an individual human being – or perhaps rather a deficiency in an individual human being. It then becomes easy to define a person by that deficiency,” said Bonfils.

An interplay between people and society

Instead, she argues that we should move towards something referred to as the biopsychosocial model in technical terms. In that model, the concept of disability is expanded to also include the surrounding environment and society. Thus, a person is not solely defined by a disability, but on the basis of the interplay between their disability and the environment and society they live in. To underscore her point, Bonfils noted that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is also based on this relational understanding of disability. The goal is to foster greater awareness about how the interplay between individuals and their environment can create barriers, but also break them and thereby pave the way to lives of dignity and inclusion.

“When broadening our students’ understanding of disability, we are very mindful of highlighting that aspect. Today, it’s often the diagnosis and therefore a medical understanding that dominates, especially when it comes to getting help,” said Bonfils.

And that’s where things get complex once again. The issue is that social workers operate within public sector systems where they have to be able to document a person’s disability before they can get help. Therefore, the person’s diagnosis – and therefore the medical understanding – plays a prominent role. If a person needs to be assessed for certain aids, then the focus is naturally on why those aids are necessary, putting the focus on their disability.

Accordingly, it is important for social workers and others who work with this group of people to be able to navigate in and out of theoretical understandings and definitions. At the same time, social workers need to take a holistic perspective when assessing the person’s situation, which is where the biopsychosocial understanding – along with ensuring the person’s dignity – comes into play

“It’s important that we take the individual’s own aspirations and wishes as our starting point. That’s the attitude we should have in mind when communicating and working with people with disabilities,” said Bonfils.

She has also done research on Supported Employment, which is essentially about offering not only individual and flexible support for persons with disabilities, but also offering continued support once they find a job. In contrast to the past approach where people were prepared for the labour market with re-training schemes and internships, they now receive more permanent support to reduce risks such as dropping out of the labour market.

“In Denmark, we don’t have a tradition of long-term job retention support, but research has shown that this could be a way to get more people with disabilities into the labour market,” said Bonfils.

As a Fellow at Copenhagen University College, she has been involved in developing a continuing education course based on research and practical experiences with Supported Employment in Denmark.

“As a university college, our task is to contribute with practice-oriented research and transform it to education that can contribute to upskilling social workers in relation to how they work with people with disabilities, ultimately ensuring the dignity and inclusion of those people,” said Bonfils.

Inge Storgaard Bonfils

Fellow at the Department of Social Work at Copenhagen University College

Member of the Bevica Foundation’s interdisciplinary research network

Read more research profiles