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Equity not equality

Dear RARE Friends,

I have always had a fascination with the English language and why we use the words we do, what they mean and where they come from.

This, paired with my rare disease, means I have a specific interest in language relating to disability and the words society chooses to use. Equality and discrimination being two huge ones.

I started thinking about this when I spoke to my University about what I would do in the event of a fire if I wasn’t on the ground floor. From this conversation, I learned that they do not keep a list of students with wheelchairs or mobility issues. The reason being they don’t ‘discriminate’ and having a list of disabled students would be doing just that.

This led me to believe that in societies aim to treat everyone the same, they are pushing minority groups further from ever being equal.

The definition of equality is to promote fairness through treating everyone the same regardless of need, whereas the definition of equity is to promote fairness through treating people differently, dependent on need. If we look at these words in the context of education, politics and other social systems, equity and equality are very similar but have slight differences. If two people were on the top floor of a building and had to get out, but one of them had mobility issues and the other did not, equality would be expecting them both to use the stairs because you wish to treat everyone the same.

By contrast, equity is providing a lift for the person with mobility issues, because you recognise everyone’s needs are different. If we are striving for equality, we need equity first.

It sounds as though I am being pedantic, surely it doesn’t make a difference which word we use, and to some extent this is true. It starts becoming a problem when people, businesses and organisations use the word equality to excuse themselves from providing extra help or a safe environment.

The two words are NOT interchangeable. Similar to people who say “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” that is all very well, but if I went over to a flight of stairs and kept smiling I would not be able to levitate to the top. They mean well but it’s this dismissal of disability that means barriers in society, education and work remain.

I never thought I’d see the day when I wrote an article asking people to stop treating disabled people equally.

However, I am tired of some people and places masking ignorance with the word equality. As someone with a rare disease, my most difficult symptom should not come from external factors in the outside world. Disabled people need their struggles recognised and things put in place to accommodate this, they need equity.

With love,

Written by Georgia Hart, as part of her regular With Love Georgia column

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