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The Role of Charities in the Continuing Oppression of the Disabled Community

History of Charity

Tracing back charities, many originally came from religious thought: the idea that it is good to help the needy. In the 1300s, the King of France set up the first charity to help blind people. Over the following two centuries this idea grew, with middle classes funding the poor and needy up until the Poor Laws were introduced, legalising begging for people designated as needy.
With the rise of industrialisation, homelessness and poverty grew alongside a breakdown in rural structure & a breakdown of parish care. This vacuum of care led to the introduction of institutions to care for those deemed to be weak - the poor and disabled. The introduction of state-run institutions in the 17 & 1800s led to a very strong medical focus on disability, centring around the idea that disabled people could, and should, be cured by medical means.
This religious makeup, the fact that it was seen within society that needy people should be helped, and the fact that care gaps existed all led to the formation of the modern charity model.

The Definition of Charity

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines charity as:
1: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
2 a: generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering, also: aid given to those in need; b: an institution engaged in relief of the poor; c: public provision for the relief of the needy
The Charities Bill (July, 2006) states that charitable purpose promotes "the relief of those in need by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage;". In relation to oppression of disabled people, this leads us to two obvious questions:
  1. Do the practices and methods of modern charities help or oppress the target audience they were set up to help?
  2. Does the concept of charity itself oppress those it aims to help?
To help us address these two questions we will look at the following areas using two of the UK's leading charities to illustrate our points, those being the RNIB (the Royal National Institute of the Blind) and Leonard Cheshire.
The areas that we will address are as follows:
  • The purpose of charities
  • How charities are established and managed
  • The role of charity advertising and sponsorship
  • The empowerment of disabled people
  • How charities contribute to the disability rights movement

The Purpose of Charities

When we speak about charities we tend to think of a group of non-disabled people helping on a voluntary basis, providing for, educating and caring for those in society who are deemed "needy". This image is mirrored in the purposes stated by the two charities in question. The Charity Commission website records the RNIB's stated aim as:
"To promote the better education, training, employment and well-being of the blind, to watch over and promote the interests of the blind and to prevent blindness."
And Leonard Cheshire's stated objects as:
"To relieve the consequences of physical and/or mental disability by the provision, in the United Kingdom and overseas, of accommodation, services and support for the spiritual, social, physical and/or mental wellbeing of disabled people, by such means as are charitable, whatever their race, nationality, creed, sex or age."
It is evident that from the statements above that many charities are still stuck in the realms of the medical model of disability, with the RNIB still aiming to "prevent blindness" and Leonard Cheshire looking to "relieve the consequences of physical and/or mental disability".
Tom Shakespeare (2003), states that charities
"promote medical research and the idea of cure; charities institutionalise disabled people".

How charities are established and managed

Charities for many years have been set up, managed and run by non disabled people and are often impairment specific. They have led to disabled people being controlled and dictated to about what is best for them. These non disabled people who involve themselves in Charities often do so because of a loved one, a friend or a calling to do good for humanity. Through their own experience of what is right they act and speak for disabled people, often promoting the plight of the disability in a way that they experience it and not through the disabled persons experience. This lack of empowerment for disabled people can be seen through the number of disabled people who are involved in the management and employment structure of the charity.
Charities are making efforts to recognise this. For example, only recently (2002) the RNIB changed its name from "The Royal National Institute for the Blind" to "The Royal national Institute of the Blind".
However, despite the change of name, the RNIB is still largely 'for' disabled people rather than 'of': In a Disability Now Survey (2003) it was found that only 7.7% of RNIB employees were disabled.
Leonard Cheshire has also been plagued by the lack of representation of disabled people. Leonard Cheshire was established in 1948 when its founder of the same name gave refuge to a friend who was terminally ill. From his Le Court residence in Hampshire a nationwide structure of residential care homes grew and as Finklestein says were responsible "for preventing the development of support systems" Clarke (2003, pg3.)
Clarke (2003, pg 4) reinforces the view of disabled people not being in control in the running of their lives through the Leonard Cheshire homes saying that the organisation has,"no democratic, accountable ways in which disabled people can have influence and control over the organisation.

The role of charity advertising and sponsorship

Though in theory charities would like to see themselves being strong advocates for improving the lives of disabled people, in practice this is often not the case. Charities still experience the same strains and stress of a commercial businesses and financing their activities and services become a major priority. Therefore ethical conflicts occur in the way that charities use advertising and carry out sponsorship activities.
Disability charities use sponsorship and advertising for several reasons:
  1. To educate non-disabled people about disabilities
  2. To raise money
  3. To promote the work of the charities themselves
Charities through advertising and sponsorship campaigns reinforce stereotypes of disabled people that being, dependant, poor, needy, requiring non-disabled people to drag them out of their pit of despair through making minimal donations. The campaigns tend to be impairment driven and purposefully (Swain, 2003,pg 91) "creating distance and inequality between the giver and the receiver".
Swain (2003, pg91) goes onto state that,
"Charity advertising provokes emotions of fear, pity and guilt, ostensibly to raise resources on behalf of disabled people. The images and language have built upon and promoted stereotypes of disabled people as dependent and tragic ... Charity advertising sells fear ... and fails to find a solution because it itself is the problem."
However there is strong evidence that charities still continue to use campaigns of this ilk as ultimately they provide much need revenue.
According to the charities commission website, in 2005-2006 the RNIB spent £11.4million on fundraising, and gained £51.3million as a result. Leonard Cheshire spent £1.6million on encouraging "legacies and individual giving", and raised £12.3million by doing so. One of the RNIB's main campaigns featured a woman who appeared to be crying at the loss of her sight:
youll never regret an eye test - RNIB advert
Charities are now employing the services of a leading design companies such as the UK design agency Bluefrog, who describe their services as (www.bluefroglondon.com, 2006),
"a group of people who come up with amazing ideas that result in a better world for all of us to live in".
The organisation claims to have "a natural affinity" with charities "aims" where they "simply concentrate on making a lasting emotional connection between organisations they work for and the people who give them money".
Their campaigns offer:
"donors the great feeling that they have helped someone less fortunate than themselves and it raises the money that organisations need."
Some of their clients include Mind, Sense, RNIB and The National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS). The campaigns do little to improve the representation of disabled people reinforcing the dependency between giver and receiver. Evidently charities still have a long way to go to improve the image of disabled people in the pubic arena.

How charities contribute to the disability rights movement

The rise of the disability rights movement occurred in the mid 1970's when a group of disabled people left the Leonard Cheshire establishment to set up the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), where the movement called for "Rights not Charity".
Criticisms of disability charities in general are:
  • That they are not run by disabled people
  • That through impairment specific charities they contributed to the segregation of disabled people
  • That they reinforce negative stereotypes of disabled people, particularly through advertising and marketing
  • That the charities themselves benefit as much, if not more, than the people they claim to be helping, and that as part of this process charities receive a positive image, while disabled people are once again portrayed as needy
  • That charity is linked closely to the medical model focussing on the impairment rather than the person, and implying that the impaired person is 'faulty' rather than society
  • Charities plug gaps in state provision with many social services activities being farmed out to charity organisations
Shakespeare (2000, cited swain 2003,pg 91) notes that,
"Charity is way for individuals and society to avoid their obligation to remove social barriers and support needy members of the community".
However things are slowly beginning to improve and charities are beginning to move away form the charity model of disability. Three years on from the quote above Shakespeare states in an article for the BBC's online Ouch website,
"At the beginning of the twenty first century ... many leading disability charities are different beasts to the patronising and amateurish institutions of old. They have been forced to change by the success of the radical disability critique of the last twenty years."
We are now seeing charities moving towards the Rights Model where disabled people are being to empowered, emancipated and enabled by the charities. They are becoming active members of disability charities where charities are increasingly focused on the rights of disabled people to be fully integrated into society. Campaigns are beginning to focus on how society needs to change rather than the disabled person and their impairments.
Nevertheless questions still need to be answered and we should not become too complacent, particularly around the role of charities.
Recently in 2006 on BBC 4 "You and Yours" it was reported that disability Charity Scope was in "financial crisis, with a deficit of more than £10 million." The charity was having to close shops, residential care homes and sell of lots of it's property to cut costs. Scope chief Executive, Tony Manwaring stated that there was a,
"Need to ensure that modern charities, which increasingly provide frontline services, are able to recover the full costs of those services in providing those services".
With charities plugging gaps in state provision it is clear that the role of charities has changed and charities are becoming more like businesses. The whole concept of charity needs revising and the following questions need to be taken into consideration:
  • Is "charity" the right word to use to describe these organisations?
  • Should charities that provide frontline services be set up as proper organisations, where they can receive the appropriate funding to deliver efficient, stable and appropriate services which are seen as a right and not a need?
  • Where these organisations can be set up, run and managed by disabled and non-disabled people equally
  • Where these organisations empower disabled people and no longer have the need to pull the heart strings of the nation, through demeaning advertising and sponsorship campaigns to raise funds
  • Where these organisations have to stop hiding behind the word "charity" and the practices that go with it, to move into a period of modernisation where they have become clearly defined credible organisations.
  • Where the disability community needs to embrace this change, with the willingness to try new ways to influence, control and be part of changing social polices and practices.
Copyright © 2012 Lucy Wood