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Better choices, better deals – empowering all consumers

September 26, 2011

Thank you to Citizens Advice Service for inviting me to speak at your National Conference in York this month.

I’ve posted up a tidied up version of my speaker notes for anyone interested who wasn’t at the conference.

Here goes…

1. Impairment and disability

Terms routinely mixed up. Not helpful when we are trying to devise a more efficient and effective way of empowering consumers. Need to understand difference to properly empower.

Impairment is a medical thing whereas disability is more of a society thing. Disability implies you aren’t able to do stuff, like work, do the shopping or the school run.

If your sight becomes impaired, you may well be able to make adaptations in the way you do things that enable you to keep doing the things you feel you have to do. Instead of jumping in the car you now walk to the local transport links, using a white stick to check the pavement as you walk, to get along to places like work, the shops or to pick your child up from school. So do you have a disability or just a sight impairment?

2. Self determination

Language is important and does determine outcomes. Even so, those of us with impairments will often self-define our impairment as a disability, even if we are relatively functional in many avenues of our lives and personally don’t want to disable ourselves. It is possible we do this because this is what we are expected to do, or because the people we are talking to don’t understand the difference.

My view here is that while as a society we cannot prevent or repair all impairments, we can maximise the chance for someone to minimise the impact of their own impairment.

3. Red line and the social bubble

I described the red line where someone’s impairment is allowed to become a disability.

Who “allows” an impairment to become a disability? This is a crucial issue for all of us to explore in our everyday work and policy development.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, but how an individual responds to their impairment is not just an internal thing. How they are facilitated or otherwise by the “social bubble” around them including their friends and family, their employer and educators, how public authorities treat them, and of course how the media treats them. These factors and more are central as enablers or disablers, influencing their response to their own impairment.

4. Positive attitude

This is probably _the_ universal catalyst for consumer empowerment to take place. Everyone in the chain needs to have a positive attitude for the good stuff to carry through, but if you don’t have a positive attitude, how can you get one?

Attitude isn’t so much something that can be trained into someone or covered off in a set of guidelines though.

Where our own attitudes come from is hard to pin down. It’s really difficult to devise training programmes designed to tackle negative attitudes, that actually work in the real world and don’t just look good on paper.

but attitudes change over time whether there are programmes or not.

5. Great reading / listening

if you’ve listened to the 7:45pm slot on BBC radio 4 over the week of this conference (12 – 16 Sept) where National Theatre of Brent have been presenting their rendition on Emmeline Pankhurst Suffragettes story (in Parallel to the CAB conference of course! There cannot be one man who is not genuinely laughing at the idea of men trying to explain why women should not have the vote, as much as at the pure comedy. Attitudes have changed.

Wikipedia page on disability says “Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions”:
Includes Discussion on impairment and disability

Wikipedia entry ” medical model of disability and social model: Often we hear about the medical and social models of disability. There’s a helpful Wikipedia page discussing these models at

6. Questions from the floor

To conclude, I have thought some more about the first question from the floor following our panel presentations, which threw up the issue of where the role of standards and regulations now sit if we are now advocating a strongly individual model?

Standards do play a central role in defining how services should be set up to accommodate diverse requirements and to deliver them, but standards do not in themselves evolve to keep up with the way consumers are evolving. Technology has already overtaken accessibility standards in use today. Many previously “reading impaired” people are requesting ordinary email and Word documents as their preferred access solution. Neither email nor Word documents are in fact “alternative formats” according to conventional thinking.

Empowering consumers is as much about constantly updating standards as anything else, and you can only do that by better and better engagement with individuals, that feeds back into the standards. A model with a slow or weak feedback process is sure to develop slowly too.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak at your conference yesterday and I hope this follow-up serves as a useful addition.


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