Can you be disabled with a mental “illness”?

The idea of disability, when applied to blindness or an inability to walk, seems fairly straightforward – a simple recognition of difference. But its application to mental distress and psychological conditions seems much more vexed and controversial. This is so amongst both health professionals and the people to whom it might be applied. Why might that be?

Disability has a legal definition. In England, Wales and Scotland the Equality Act 2010 covers work, education, housing and the provision of goods or services. At least in theory, the Act protects people from being discriminated against because of certain protected characteristics such as gender, age or disability. To count as disabled you must show that your condition has a “substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on your normal day-to-day activities”. Many of us will feel we easily meet this condition.

There are several ways of looking at disability.

In the medical model, something is wrong with your “body” (and by extension, your “mind”). You have a mental “illness” or “impairment” which disables you from reaching your full potential.

In the social model, something is wrong with your society, and the arrangements it has made for you. Society is what disables you from reaching your full potential. This model does not necessarily value one kind of life over another, treats people as inherently diverse and allows for a variety of attitudes to our condition. (Although many of us are indeed in distress and desperate for a way out, others accept the way we are and do not necessarily want to be “cured” of anything!).

In the case of mental distress and “ill health” both these models are under attack from a third, neo-liberal recovery model.

For some years now, Government policy in the UK has been dominated by “Austerity”: a programme of reductions to public spending and removal of any constraints on business which interfere with making a profit. Profit is assumed to be the highest good and nobody has any “right” to payments from public funds, not even if they contributed the money via taxes and national insurance in the first place. Austerity lies behind the “Hostile Climate” experienced by the poor in general and by some groups in particular (refugees/asylum seekers, members of ethnic minorities and disabled people – above all, those whose continued existence might involve a cost on the public purse).

Neatly fitting into this context, the Recovery model firmly rejects any concept of permanent or long-term psychological impairment or difference and concentrates on finding quick, cheap fixes which get people back to work. It’s important to clarify what kind of work. Ideally full-time and paid, it certainly doesn’t mean work which provides you with enough to live on, or which is socially useful or “meaningful” in some way. The defining feature is that it must make a profit for somebody else – preferably a large employer.

In this model lack of effort (and too much help from family or society) is what disables you from reaching your full potential. Psychological disability becomes essentially a moral question, much as it was back in the days of demon-possession and sin. Although by no means all NHS mental health professionals agree with this view, most in the UK have had to deal with it one way or another. Many feel obliged to pressure people to “recover” in these terms, as rapidly as possible.

So given that the Equality Act gives disabled people rights and a protected status, why might we be reluctant to call ourselves “disabled”?

We may feel we have no right to claim the label, and feel embarrassed at the need for support it seems to imply. (It took a GP’s recognition that her condition was long-term before the writer felt she had permission to use it, for example.) This is of course nonsense in a social animal like homo sapiens whose daily survival depends on the support of others, but in a society dominated by neo-liberal ideas, “independence” can sometimes feel like a necessary condition for self-respect and dignity.

We may associate it with hopelessness, rejection, degradation and despair. Lurking just behind the shoulder of many of us (especially those aged 50+) is the nightmarish spectre of the old “hospitals” where the mentally “ill” (such as unmarried mothers, or those who had accused powerful people of abuse) the learning disabled and the physically disabled alike were incarcerated, lobotomised, electroshocked, raped, abused and/or abandoned and forgotten for ever. (Because of this, for some of us it took a significant act of courage to “come out” to the NHS as “mentally ill” in the first place.)

In the Hostile Climate, where disabled people face routine hostility, harassment and physical attack, it may be genuinely dangerous. Bullying and abuse from others often makes our psychological distress worse. It may even place us in immediate physical danger.

So why might we want to use the term “disabled”?

Many of us fit the definition in the Equality Act, and we may want to claim the legal rights it gives us. Especially if we are in paid employment, we (or our union representatives) may be able to insist that our employers make reasonable adjustments to enable us to continue working on equal terms to our workmates. (I am assured by Unison colleagues that this still can and does happen on occasion, especially in what remains of the public sector.)

It may help others take our condition seriously, and to accept that we’re in there for the duration. It may help to prevent idiocies like telling the severely depressed to cheer up, or trauma victims that there is “nothing to worry about”.

It may help us to insist on our human dignity. It may help us to make common cause with others who face different problems, but the same oppressor. It may help us to build solidarity. It may help us to take ourselves seriously. I like this quote from one of our members, ‘I am disabled due to my emotional distress, adversity, finances and society. Proud to call myself disabled!’

Rita Binns

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