Community Education Essay

Anti-oppressive practice

“Only an understanding of internalization makes sense of the incredible fact that most external controls work most of the time for most of the people in society. Society not only controls our movements, but shapes our identity, our thoughts and our emotions. The structures of society become the structure of our own consciousness. Society does not stop at the surface of our skins. Society penetrates us and envelops us” (Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology 1966:140)

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Drawing on relevant reading and your own experiences, discuss your understanding of the above quotation and its implications for anti-oppressive practice in community education.

Berger’s school of thought suggests that the society in which we live has a direct correlation to who we are as individuals. This positivist perspective of the world suggests that there is no free will and that human beings are rational individuals who obey external laws without question. Such a positivist paradigm limits socialist politics and restricts our understanding of oppression from the outset.

If I adopt a more critical paradigm and focus the approach on oppression and discrimination I will begin to unravel the complex relationship between power and powerlessness that exist between certain groups within society. This critical perspective will allow me to explore the view that human beings have a potential for adjustment and are not as Berger suggests independent of human consciousness. Also if I apply this critical perspective to the area of disablism, I will hopefully go some way of combining the relevant readings and research and my own experiences so that anti oppressive practice within community education can be fully explored.

Freire (1970) saw oppression as the engine in the cycle of poverty, violence, and illiteracy that plagues so much of the world. The poor do not see they can be anything but poor. This system of social control when enhanced with political and economic structures creates:

“a state of affairs in which life chances are constructed, and as the process by which this state of affairs is created and maintained” (Mullender and Ward 1993: 148).

Likewise, Thompson describes oppression as,

“Inhuman or degrading treatment of individuals or groups; hardship and injustice brought about by the dominance of one group over another; the negative demeaning exercise of power. Oppression often involves disregarding the rights of an individual or group and is thus a denial of citizenship.” (Thompson 2001:34)

In addition, because the only models they have available to them are those of the oppressors, the oppressed will exploit each other in their attempt to gain some measure of independence. Reiser et al (1990) explains how disabled people struggle against society for their own identity:

“Almost every activity of daily living can take on the dimension of trying to make you less like yourself and more like the able-bodied. The world is often quite happy to reinforce this rather than being objective.” (Pg. 25)

This ideology when combined with the ideology of the Medical Model of disability has an almost complete hegemonic dominance within most Western cultures (Oliver, 1991). It is a dominance supported by almost all other forms of cultural and social discourse; be it in social policy (Oliver and Barnes, 1998), charity (Hevey, 1992) or legislation (Barnes, 1991). The aim of the medical model ideology is to restore the disabled person to normality, whatever that may be. Under this ideology the pain and suffering of disabled people is always justified and the power and dominance of the medical profession is transferred across society.

Very recently a member of my own family was seriously considering the termination of their pregnancy on the advice of doctors because in the doctors opinion she had a 16:1 chance of having a baby with downs syndrome. At no time during this process were they sign posted to disability organisations or provided with any information about downs syndrome, other than the medical causes of the condition. The power that doctors have is a result of the historical and political medicalisation of disability. It is only through the redistribution of power that disabled people will be able to affect decisions that affect their lives. This balancing of power will only come about as part of the process of political empowerment of disabled people as a group.

It is na�ve to expect anything different, yet it is unfair to be overtly critical of those individuals with impairments who choose isolation. Freire (1970) also saw the lack of self-worth of oppressed groups as a function of their oppression.

“Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them. So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything-that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive-that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness” (Pg. 49).

Many of the disabled people I work with feel that their non-disabled peers are valued more highly within and by society. As a result they want to become like them, not because they want to lose their impairment as this often makes them who they are, but because they feel that they are not living life on a level playing field. This is the process or phenomenon of “internalised oppression.”

Reiser and Mason (1990) explain that all disabled people suffer from internalised oppression:

“internalised oppression is not the cause of our mistreatment, it is the result of our mistreatment. It would not exist without the real external oppression that forms the social climate in which we exist.

Once oppression has been internalised, little force is needed to keep us submissive. We harbor inside ourselves the pain and the memories, the fears and the confusions, the negative self images and the low expectations, turning them into weapons with which to re-injure ourselves, every day of our lives” (p. 22)

Inequality and oppression are socially constructed phenomena, when these ideas are accepted as natural, right and proper by individuals who are oppressed it is referred to as internalised oppression. The process of internalising oppression means that those in power will not have to resort to external control to gain compliance from those without power.

In order to contextualize external controls that oppress disabled people, it is critical to have a conscious understanding of the historical and political oppression that disabled people have faced. Indeed, adapting to adverse conditions is something that disabled people have had to overcome throughout history, as Wood (1991), suggests, the majority of workhouse inmates were the:

“physically and mentally disabled, the aged, the orphan and a wide variety of sick.” (Pg. 98-99)

The Poor Law was replaced on paper by the 1948 National Assistance Act. However in practice, disabled people were incarcerated in institutions and their families obliged to pay the costs. The views and aspirations of disabled people at that time were of no consequence and the community care policy of the 1960’s continued to take no account of the growing discontent of disabled people, with the lack of community based alternatives to institutional provision.

The only way disabled people could challenge the adverse conditions they faced was to become more organised. Challenging those who controlled disabled peoples lives started towards the end of the last century. Organisations set up and run by disabled people at this time, seeked to make improvements based on the welfarist mode.

It was not until the early 1970’s that the Union of the Physically Impaired against Segregation, redefined disability as

“the disadvantage or restriction of ability caused by contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.” (UPIAS, 1976, p.14).

For the first time in history disability was prosecuted as a particular form of social oppression. This shows that it is only by challenging adverse conditions that change can take place. There is still along way to go for the disabled people’s movement as they seek to readdress the power imbalance that exists between those who control disability policy and disabled people themselves.

The UPIAS definition of 1976, has proved to be extremely important within the disability movement as it was from this definition that Oliver (1983) came up with the idea of the individual/medical and social model of disability based on the distinction made between impairment and disability.

Society is organised in such a way that the aids which we need to function within our society are freely available, with some measure of choice, and are in the economic means of almost everyone. We call them normal. Disabled people want this range of normal provision to include all those things presently called special and for them to be as available.

The classification ‘special’ brings with it the apparent right to charge more and take longer; this is an excellent example of discrimination on the grounds of disability.

Disabled people need alternative means to achieve the same results as non- disabled people, their route may be different yet the destination is the same, they are not ‘special’, just equal members of society.

Society is usually referring to an individual’s perceived medical condition when it labels someone disabled, it is important to know how disabled people define disability? Barnes (1994) explains the meaning behind the terminology:

Impairment: is the functional limitation within an individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment

Disability: is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the everyday life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. (Pg. 5)

Therefore, society creates barriers to the inclusion of disabled people. Disabled people are not disabled by their impairment but by the society in which they live. Hevey (1992) explains this concept very well:

“It is not our medical conditions that determine our quality of life. It is the negative planning, the non consultation, segregation in education and inaccessible architecture which create disability. Wherever there is inaccessible transport or inaccessible buildings or inaccessible information, there will be disabled people.” (Pg. 99)

The socio-political environment which discriminates against and marginalizes disabled people is the main source of oppression (Oliver, 1990). According to Barnes (1991) and other social model theorists the focus of the disability struggle, should be on transforming the social institutions and the built environment so that they are accessible to the whole population rather than the able bodied/minded members of a community.

An inner most tenet of the Social Model of disability is that effective solutions to the problems that disabled people face cannot be imposed from outside or above. Groups working together must find solutions.

From a political context, the absence of any clear ideological commitment or policy direction from central government has resulted in a largely pragmatic approach to services for disabled people. Because of the hostility by the Tories to the idea that disabled people should enjoy the same rights and opportunities as their non disabled peers the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) encountered wholesale rejection by the disabled peoples movement and its supporters. This rejection came about due to the Act’s reflection of medical definitions, limited scope, allowances for ‘justified discrimination’, and poor provisions for implementation and enforcement.

This act is the one that society and its infrastructure adhere to, however tentatively, when marketing and delivering their services. As Davis (1996) explains:

“the fundamental problem is the disproportionate distribution of power and influence between those who control disability policy and disabled people themselves.” (Pg. 55)

By looking at the acts carried out throughout history, it becomes apparent that those with power, seek to isolate vulnerable groups and collude in order to maintain power in the continuous process of oppression.

This controlling ethos has led Frinkelstein (1997) to consider that the version of community care currently on offer to disabled people is

“…a pernicious influence in maintaining the boundary between disability and normality, just at a time when disabled people are challenging the artificiality of this and other boundaries that constrain our, and non-disabled peoples lifestyles.” (Pg. 13.)

Gramsci (1891-1937), emphasized the importance of ideology in maintaining class rule and in bringing about social change. Gramsci argued that political rule required legitimacy, i.e. convincing the people that your ideas about society are appropriate, just and fair. Gramsci explained that the process of presenting the interests of the dominant classes as universal interests is the process of hegemony.

In order to succeed, the hegemonic plan needs to take counter-hegemonic groups seriously. By acting as an autonomous player, the government accommodates various class interests and social movements, while maintaining the overall capitalist system of production and the general hierarchical organization of society. The main task of the hegemonic power is to maintain capitalism as an ideology.

Within capitalist society disabled people have be viewed as being a drain on resources and throughout history they have been oppressed. In the years leading up to World War II, where Fascism had actually succeeded where Marxism had failed, namely in organizing and motivating the masses, Nazi doctors used disabled children and adults for medical experiments and tested the technology for mass extermination on disabled people. It is estimated that seventy thousand disabled people died to purify the gene pool between January and August 1941.

By examining the historical and political oppression disabled people have faced we can better understand that it is only through challenging and questioning the ideology that controls the power balance within society, that disabled people can begin to reclaim their human rights.

Humanization requires students to achieve “conscientizcao” or critical consciousness (Freire, 1970). This consciousness comes from questioning what one knows and making a conscious decision to see the reasons for the reality one lives in. Freedom from oppression can only come when the oppressed achieve critical consciousness and use that knowledge to gain “praxis.”

Praxis is the practice of reflection on readings, current events, situations, and questions that leads a student to act on those findings. According to Freire (1970), this is the reason to educate. Praxis changes the world.

“Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion” (p. 31).

Freire (1970) saw that the reason to educate the oppressed was to foster them to critical consciousness through the questioning of their political and economic situation and setting up democratic, non-dictatorial practices in the classroom that could be used in other governing situations. With these tools, the barriers between teachers and students break down and the teacher-student comes into solidarity with the student-teacher. This is a key concept for Community Educators:

“The raison d’�tre of libertarian education . . . lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (p. 62).

People with critical consciousness view problems as structural problems. It enables interpretation of problems and therefore, must involve “analysis” and ‘integrated with reality”. To achieve this level of consciousness, learners must reject passivity with the use of praxis and, work and struggle collectively (not individually) (Heaney, 1995).

Freire’s concept of critical consciousness can be understood as the process in which humans become more aware of the sources of their oppression. In order to become aware that their oppression is not a permanent fact, but results from the operation of unjust societal structures and mechanisms their ability to think critically by the oppressed must be enhanced.

This is the first step in achieving empowerment. It is important to define empowerment to enable a clearer linkage with the concept of Freire’s critical consciousness. According to Johnson (1992), the empowerment process can be seen both as imperceptible changes in consciousness and identity while achieving particular goals (self-discovery), and also as an engagement in public action (collective identity). Central to the process of recognising the personal as political (Ward and Mullender 1991) and a key rule for community educators is empowering groups to take control this in itself is a key process in anti-oppressive practice.

Dalrymple and Burke (1995), suggest that empowerment is “about replacing powerlessness with ‘some sense of power’ so that confusion can give way to a feeling of coherence’.” (Rees 1991:21, cited in Dalrymple and Burke 1995:52). They developed a three level model looking at empowerment, as a process of change.

The process looked at level of feelings, level of ideas and level of action. Using an example of a disabled young person experiencing discrimination at school, the level of feeling allows the young person to talk about their experiences (developing trust and confidence), the level of ideas attempts to develop self worth and re-addressing the attribution of blame. The final process of change looks at supporting the young person to take action on the situation they face.

Dalrymple and Burke emphasise the difficulties for any group to achieve the final stage,

” It is often far easier to return to a difficult but familiar situation than it is to fight on.” (Dalrymple and Burke 1995:55)

[PB1]Lloyd and her colleagues (1996) acknowledge the current emphasis on allowing users to be involved in formulating plans and defining their needs can be lip service only, especially when users have difficulty communicating. Lloyd and her colleagues observe that:

“Empowerment and partnership will not just happen; they must be resourced, perhaps by challenging the impact on people of powerlessness, disadvantage and oppression, perhaps by providing opportunities for them to acquire knowledge, understanding and support which will increase their self confidence, power, control and choice.” (Lloyd et al., 1996).[PB2]

Similar to Dalrymple and Burke’s 3 level model of empowerment, Thompson (1993) developed a 3 level model looking at oppression. Thompson tries to simplify how inequalities feature in social circumstances by analysing them at three levels. These three levels, the Personal, Cultural and Structural (PCS) levels are inter-linked and constantly interact with one another.

At a personal level disabled people feel very isolated and it is this feeling of isolation that goes hand in hand with the concept of internalised oppression discussed earlier.

“This is the other phenomena of internalised oppression, and especially in the world of disability, has led to us dividing and dividing into smaller and smaller groups, competing with and denying each other, leading many of us to become isolated disabled people living with able bodied people on able bodied terms – millions of individuals doing our best to “make it” on our own. (Reiser et al, 1990:27)

The Berger quote that launched the assignment, is I believe, located on the cultural level of Thompson’s PCS analysis. Oppression at a cultural level assumes a consensus about what is true, right, good and normal. The values, ethics and ideals under which all of us carry out our everyday actions, obviously influence our behaviour. If disabled and non-disabled people operate at a level of magical consciousness (Friere 1973) they will fail to question their situation and will be unable to implement political strategies aimed at altering the ideology under which they live their lives.

Cultural representations do tell us a lot about disability as it is lived; they must do in order to posit themselves in any form or verisimilitude of realism (as most cultural representations of disability do). Even if cultural representations show only a Medical Model view of disability, one must take into account that it is the model that dominates the everyday lives of most disabled people (Turner, 1995; Rojek et al, 1988; Armstrong, 1983; Armstrong, 1990). As such, they reflect such a nexus’s hegemony back to the majority of impaired individuals who live under its power, gaze and influence.

Berger highlights the effects that prejudice can have on an individual when this is internalised,

“The pre-judging not only concerns the victim’s external fate at the hands of the oppressor, but also his consciousness as it is shaped by their expectations. The most terrible thing that prejudice can do to a human being is to make him tend to become what the prejudices image of him says that he is.”

(Berger 1966: 120)

The S level relates to the structure and institutions within society that perpetuate prejudice, discrimination and social divisions of society. Thompson suggests that effective anti-oppressive practice needs to challenge all three levels in order to have a long-term positive effect for oppressed groups. Ideology is said to be the glue that binds the three levels of Thompson PCS model together. With this in mind our current understanding is unlikely to be valid in the future. At any one time there are different ideologies competing for our attention, therefore we must continually challenge ideology so that the various forms of oppression can be confronted at the personal, cultural and structural level.

Research into the relationships of Counselors and their clients (Marks 1999) warn against the dangers of professionals adopting a position of ‘expert.’ It is crucial that Community Educators are able to be reflexive and self-critical so that they avoid imposing their own worldview on the communities with which they work.

It is crucial that the process of learning is centered around the individual and that they are given space and time to examine and explore their own position and experience within the world. Community Educators need to acquire a set of values that might include beliefs about human rights, social inclusion and an idea of what constitutes a full life (such as having opportunities for innovative and stimulating experiences, having social and interpersonal relationships.)

These values need to be supplemented with a knowledge of where the communities with which they work are at present and what they may have experienced in the past. The disabled person needs to experience empathy rather than an alternative view so that they can make their own judgements and opinions. [PB3]

Sinason’s (1992) pioneering work with learning disabled clients showed that often behind compliant behaviour, there exists an all to appropriate rage about a hostile and external world. She writes:

“Some disabled people behave like smiling pets for fear of offending those they are dependent on……….When people depend for their lives on cruel regimes they need to cut their intelligence and awareness. Black slaves and their dependants in the USA learned to show their intelligence in private and adopt a stupid appeasing way of talking in front of whites. (1992;21)

In a society obsessed with measuring intelligence, those designated as learning disabled can be profoundly unsettling to the rest of society. As a society we treat the birth of babies with a disability as a tragedy and fail to offer appropriate support to parents/carers of disabled children. We segregate and hide away adults with learning disabilities so that they go unnoticed within society.

As Rawlsian’s (1971) notions of social justice suggest – a society does not advance unless the least advantaged citizens advance:

“If we are trying to achieve an inclusive society we need an agenda that recognizes social inequality as repugnant…and a learning environment which is not about enforcing but about challenging division.” (Orbach R17 pg. 23)

However many disabled people do not see themselves as disabled. They subscribe to neither the medical or social model and do not wish to be involved with the disability movement. Radicals within the disability movement may wrongly determine this as internalised oppression or false consciousness but this attitude can itself be oppressive and patronizing.

Many disabled young people do not wish to be seen as part of a minority group and just want to be recognised as normal, though different (Priestley et al, 1999). Indeed many people with learning difficulties do not wish to be seen as disabled or different (Finlay & Lyons, 1998). It could be said that the same might apply to older people with chronic illnesses or impairments, who make up the majority of disabled people in Britain.

As a Community educator I need to have a bi-focal vision which enables me to understand both macro structures and relations and interpersonal and subjective experience of disability. This critical perspective will enable me to empower the disabled people with whom I work and at the same time question the power dynamics in our relationship and our relationships with others.[PB4]


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