On Burdens, Othering, and the Social Model of Disability

One of the greatest burdens of having a disability is the oft-repeated myth that in being disabled, we are ourselves a burden. That the lives of the disabled are by definition, less worthy than those of able-bodied people, and that any attempt to accomodate us is a praise-worthy deviation from the norm, rather than a basic standard of behaviour.

Australia Social Services Minister Christian Porter tweets: Disability burden $17bn a year. Stephen Koukoulas replies, "burden"?

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the discussion surrounding government support for the disabled. Pictured above is social services minister and perpetual twat Christian Porter, describing the (erroneous) cost of disability support pensions as a “burden”. Unfortunately, he is not alone.

Former treasurer Joe Hockey was known to characterise the National Disability Insurance Scheme as a “cost” to society, a gross mischaracterisation of a scheme that was intended to bring independence to the lives of the disabled, rather than act as welfare. (Joe now makes a living charging taxpayers thousands for private nannies while he wines and dines around New York on a government-paid $360,000 salary and $90,000 pension.) And former PM and onion eater extraordinaire Tony Abbott made news a few months back by announcing that Australia had to “wake up” to the fact that DSP receipients were most likely fakers placing an enormous strain on the budget.

Tony Abbott bites into a raw onion.
Why, yes, that is a man whose opinion I would respect.

In this kind of language, disabled people are less people than burdens, costs on society, and a general nuisance. Any accommodations are a wasteful display of excessive generosity, rather than a basic right. In a society such as Australia, we are all accommodated in some way – families are accommodated with family tax benefits and childcare rebates, businesses are accommodated with tax breaks and grants, and we are all accommodated in a society that provides roads, free education and universal healthcare. So why is it services for people with disabilities that are characterised as wasteful?


When disabled people are presented as a burden, they become “othered” – the out-group who isn’t like the rest of society and seems just a little less human for it. People who aren’t “one of us.” One of the most insidious effects of othering is a denial of vital services to the marginalised group.

It is so much easier to justify locking asylum seekers in indefinite offshore detention when they are portrayed as anonymous “boat people” coming to steal “our” way of life, rather than facing the fact that they are just as human as you or I. Similarly, painting disabled people as drains on the public purse or objects of pity obviates any need for society to actually accomodate disabled people, rather than tolerate them.

See caption.
An image of a refugee protest at Nauru detention centre. The Australian government has forbidden media outlets from visiting offshore detention centres, to prevent any risk of humanising refugees. Source.


The social model of disability proposes that we are not most “disabled” by our disabilities themselves, but by a society which does not accomodate us. Negative attitudes, physical barriers to access, and exclusion by society are the most “disabling” factors in our lives. For many disabled people, participation in society hinges on accessibility. And when disabled people become “othered”, it becomes that much easier to justify denying said access.

For example, there are many disabled people who would be able to work, if they had not encountered such obstacles as inaccessible buildings and prejudiced company cultures. Imagine the economic impact of having those able and willing in the workforce, no longer excluded by an ableist culture.

In fact, I believe that making inclusion the rule, rather than the exception, would have a positive impact on society as a whole. Initiatives to encourage mothers back to the workforce, such as childcare subsidies, result in an economic net benefit. Immigrants bring economic gains to their new home, as well as invaluable cultural benefits. We should be asking what benefits disabled people will bring to the table, if they are not denied a seat.

Above: one of the greatest benefits of immigration is the delicious foodstuffs available for take away


Despite my emphasis on the importance of pride in disability activism, I too often find myself slipping back into the belief that I am worth less than others because of my illness. Undoing the shackles of societal narrative and forging your own self-belief requires an enormous amount of willpower, something which I cannot always muster. I can see how internalised ableism, misogyny and racism so easily take root – sometimes it is just too hard to not take on the messages with which you are bombarded every day, especially when you start from a position of disadvantage.

It is too easy to forgot that these attitudes occur by design, not nature, and would not be as prevalent if accomodation for disabled people become non-negotiable. If we were no longer portrayed as burdens, but as human beings who have the same right as everyone else to participation in society. “Inclusion” should not be a catch-cry or a special effort to include the “other”, but the status quo.

See caption.
A screenshot from Disability March, a protest which ran in conjunction with Women’s March online, allowing those who could not physically attend protests to virtually “march”. It was made for the disability community, by the disability community.



Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic disability advocate.

6 thoughts on “On Burdens, Othering, and the Social Model of Disability”

  1. i really appreciate you posting stuff like this. i live in the US and i tend to naively assume that universal healthcare is a panacea for all social ills. i forget or don’t see how it’s under attack in other countries, and i don’t realize how improved access to care doesn’t actually change underlying attitudes about what disability and health mean.


    1. I couldn’t have put it better myself, Liz! Although we are lucky to have universal healthcare in Australia, and it is an incredibly popular program among the populace, the (conservative) Liberal party have been trying to dismantle it since their inception. In fact, they did succeed, when Malcolm Fraser took over Parliament from Gough Whitlam and made eliminating Medicare his first act, but it was brought back by subsequent Labor governments. It is now so entrenched that their only way to harm it is by stealth, with attitudes such as those displayed above, cutting rebates, etc.


  2. Hi Siobhan, I agree with all of your points. Given what’s happening here in the US, I suspect that the underlying purpose in making the disabled appear undeserving, is just to save money so they can cut taxes on the rich. In this country, the rich already have laws and tax systems designed for their benefit, maybe the same entitled attitude of the rich exists in your country. I truly believe that the rich in my country all have our legislators “in their pockets”.


    1. Oh, absolutely. It’s so much easier to make cuts to welfare if you portray recipients as frauds, rather than people who need help. Power = rich practically everywhere, unfortunately.


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