Disability and Professional Identity: Negotiated Change for Fitness to Practice

July 5th, 2010


Policy makers recognize that the employment challenges encountered by disabled people are due to a complex matrix of attitudes, hostile environments and disabling barriers (Barnes, 1992: Burchardt, 2005). Hence, established explanations for the challenges disabled people seem to experience in the labour market are no longer viewed as fitting by the same people and their organizations.    


This paper considers two issues; negotiated change for fitness to practice in the workplace and formation of professional identities for disabled people.
This consideration will outline an historical background how disability became a policy issue of central concern to both employers and to the disability
movement. This exposure is fundamental in order to clearly understand the present situation regarding the challenges disabled persons face, vis-à-vis these issues. Illustrations of situations from developed and developing countries will be cited. A general overview will be made of policy and practice regarding fitness to practice and professional identity formation of disabled people. It is argued that disabled people face considerable challenges in accessing work and that those already in employments also face considerable challenges in defining and asserting their professional identity due to a combination of factors such as discriminatory employment policies and other disabling factors in their socio cultural contexts.

 Terms Explained: Impairment, Disability and Handicap

In this section, the terms, disability, impairment and handicap, as encountered in the general area of disability studies will be examined. The term identity in general will be defined but professional identity, in particular will be considered. Other terms such as, social identity and personal identity etcetera may be gleaned upon contextually. 

Although the use of the terms disability, impairment and handicap tends to unite the medical and social models of disability and is of practical value (Jones, 2001), the terminology can often be ambiguous and confusing. Hence, the need to separate and define their meanings (Harris, 1971).The understanding of the terms impairment, disability or handicap, wherever used in this paper is derived from the original World Health Organization (WHO) International Classification of Function rather than the update version of it, because, although the recent version claims to unite the models of disability, it seems not sufficient enough in differentiating subtle issues, for example, poor attitudes or poor air quality affecting breathing (Jones.2001); issues which are of particular concern to the daily lives of disabled people. 

 Although the terms impairment, disability and handicap are often used interchangeably, they are in fact, not synonymous.  Impairment is an abnormality of a structure or function; for example an abnormality of the ear. Disability on the other hand is the functional consequence of impairment (for example, the inability to hear certain sounds). Handicap is the social impact of impairment on an individual; for instance, the loss of a job or making a career change as a result of communication difficulties (Who, 1980: Jones, 2001: Metts, 2004). 

 Unfortunately, disability scholars seem not to adequately separate meanings either, and tend to treat these terms as if they are the same, leading to ambiguity and confusion. But the International Classification of Function (ICF) matrix illuminates these notions in a different perspective and acknowledges that all individuals experience a decrement in health and thereby experience some degree of disability, impairment and handicap ranging in severity from mild, to moderate, severe and profound. The ICF ‘mainstreams’ disability as an experience and recognizes it as a universal human phenomenon (WHO, 1980). It defines ‘disability’ as a restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner within the range considered normal for a human being (WHO, 1980).

 This definition of disability however, is problematic and consequently, has not received universal acceptance and therefore, remains criticized (Oliver,
1990: French, 1994). It remains criticized because it tends to be medically dominant and seems to embrace the notion of impairment as an abnormality in
function, disability as an inability to engage in an activity considered normal for a human being and handicap as the inability to carry out a normal social
role. Yet, progressive thinking has since departed from these notions. Also, the reification of the concept of normality appears very problematic too (Jones, 2001). The notion of normality is complex and has a flipside to it (Tremain, 2005. And ‘normal’ is a relative because something considered normal to one community may not be normal to another (Davis, 1995). Its converse, ‘abnormal’ can be associated with ‘deviation’, which will always be produced so long as people with or without disabilities strive for normality and for an existence in society (Tremain, 2005:192).

 Therefore, by focusing on the human aspect of impairment and disability and shifting from viewing these  as a ‘medical’,  ‘biological’  or ‘social’ condition, the ICF matrix overrides the issue of normality and places all disability and health conditions on an equal pedestal, allowing both health and disability to exist contiguously and to be compared using a common matrix. The basic tenets of this matrix are sound and have since been adopted by many United Nations member states and translated into respective country legislative frameworks. For instance, the United Kingdom, USA and Zimbabwe, to name a few, enacted –respectively- the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (Office of Public Sector Information, 1995), the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) (United States Government, 1990) and the Disabled Persons Act (Government Printers, 1996).

 However, in spite of the existence and the adoption of the common ICF matrix, the question of disability terminology and definitions still remains a subject of much debate amongst disabled people, their organizations and disability studies. Additionally, disability as an area of study is both under studied and under theorized (Davis, 1995). There is also inconsistency in the use of other attendant terms. For instance, some writers refer to individuals with impairments as ‘disabled persons’ (Oliver, 1990), while others prefer to say ‘persons with a disability (International Labour Organization, (ILO) 2008). However, the use of the term ‘disabled’ as a human descriptor ‘sounds’ (metaphorically) rather mechanical, because reference is often made to inanimate items as being ‘disabled’, for instance, a disabled lock, a disabled machine, a disabled computer application, andetcetera. The understanding portrayed being that, when something is ‘disabled’, it has been deliberately made to temporarily malfunction but, can be ‘enabled at any other time, at the user’s discretion. Therefore, the connotation given in reference to people would be that a ‘disabled person’ can, at a later point be rehabilitated, or to be made non-disabled. This is misleading when one considers labels like ‘disabled toilet’ or ‘disabled car parking’ Perhaps, the use of the term ‘disabled people’ can appropriately be applied to people undergoing, rehabilitative therapy done to enable a person to regain lost functionality of either an ambulatory, sensorial or cognitive nature  (Mpofu & Hartley; 2002). Only then, perhaps, can a person be referred to as ‘disabled’.

However, proponents of the term “disabled people” , point out that its use is in line with the social model which purports that people are disabled by society and restrictive environmental factors and disabling barriers (Union for the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), 1981; Oliver, 1990; Barnes,1992). But in the social model context the connotation of ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’, represent a diverse system of social constraints imposed on disabled people by a highly discriminatory society (Barnes, 1992). Viewed through the social model, to be disabled or to have a disability can mean, The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities. (UPIAS, 1976, pp. 3-4).

 In the human rights model, the term “person with a disability” is generally more acceptable and seems to becoming increasingly a global catch phrase (ILO, 1988). Epistemologically however, to this writer, all the terms, i.e. ‘handicapped person’, ‘disabled person and ‘person with a disability’ still do not
seem to make sense. As an addendum to the critique of the descriptor ‘disabled’ presented above, ‘disability’ is construed to mean a personal experience that arises from the interaction between a disabled person and to a large extent, the context in which they live (Schneider, Hurst, Miller & Ustin (2003). Experience is interactive with the environment and is thus, a product of the interrelationship of both intrapersonal (identity) factors and external (environmental) factors; if the environment changes, then the experience of disability will also change.  It is transient. Therefore, to say a ‘person with a disability’ is synonymous to a ‘person with an experience’ does not appear to identify a person correctly, least what the language intends to say. The problem with the issue of disability is that the environment’s definitive influence in creating disability has now been firmly established and is seen as integral to the definition of disability (Schneider, 2006). However, it is apparent, that the language of disability is not consistent with progressive thought and is need of updating and modification, although superficially, the term impairment is least in need of modification. In this discussion therefore, a choice had to be made on which term to use in the light of terms appearing nonsensical. The phrase ‘disabled people’ was chosen and will therefore be used purely on the basis of its ‘seemingly good fit’, familiarity and ease of pronunciation in the flow of reading and writing; and also as a reference to a particular group of people, with seemingly an identity crisis.


Identity, as a concept, is universal, unfixed, multi-faceted, dynamic and inextricably intertwined with other notions (Schneider, et. al, 2003) and therefore,
arguably, not easy to define (Giddens, 1991), It is a concept postmodernists contend, is ever evolving and appears to be a product of forces interacting
on one’s uniqueness, social influences and environmental conditions with which one comes into constant contact (Brown, 1991).  And the tendency of this process is the creation of different types of identity moulded around contexts. For example, there can be collective identity, cultural identity, personal identity, social identity (Hannum, 2007), disabled identity, spoilt identity (Goffman, 1990), professional identity, political identity and etcetera. Of
interest in this paper, is professional identity which is built around personal identity within a work environment.  

 The concept of personal identity emanates from the intrinsic sense of self and extends outward to the outer external physical and social factors thus offering a basis of comparison with the significant others in the same context (Beown,1993: Goffman, 1958). Personal identity is not something that one has, but is something that one develops and evolves during one’s lifetime as shaped by ecological and socio-cultural factors (Beijaard, Meijer & Verloop, 2004).

Personal identity, can therefore, be defined as “….sameness with another or the unique characteristics which determine individuality (Brown, 1993: 1304).
Because of the uniqueness or sameness with another, each person’s identity can then be perceived through a lens capable of illuminating one’s universal identity (Liang, 1965; Somers, 1994; Beijaard, et al., 2004). Personal identity is how people perceive and make sense of each other (Goffman, 1958). It is elemental to all social contact and to the erection of society and culture. People want to know about others’ thinking, affiliations, and intentions
in order to understand their words and actions and to predict their future behavior. These entities are not immediately apparent; but, others see outer
manifestations, or signals, of one’s inner state within a wider social identity, (a subject currently being debated around modernism and postmodernism).
Social identity comprises entities of a person’s identity that come from belonging to a particular cohort that may include age, ethnicity, race, religion,
gender, sexual orientation, nationality, socio-economic status or profession (Hannum, 2007).

 Quintessentially, identity as a concept, is intricate and loaded with philosophical, psychological and sociological overtones which are located in processes to be found in the core of an individual’s cultural context (Erikson, 1968; Samuel and Stephens, 2000), The knowledge, of one’s identity both from an ontological (inner) and epistemological (outer) perspective brings in the questions ‘who am I?’ or ‘who are we?’ (Ng, Han, Mao & Lai, 2010). And for a disabled person considering a professional career, a further question such as ‘what do I want to be?’ can be pivotal to the fundamental relationship between an individual’s personal identity and the construction of one’s professional identity (Samuel et.al. 2000). But then, while the development of an individual’s personal identity can be located at the socio cultural level, a person’s professional identity is ultimately shaped by what goes on in both the socio-cultural context
and one’s professional environment (Samuel, et. al., 2000).

 Notably, the socio-cultural and professional environments appear to exist contiguously and are in constant interaction with each other; and neither appears non-porous to the forces of change that constantly impact on individuals and their professional practice. In that light therefore, a person’s identity (either ontological or epistemological) that attempts to assert itself in a professional environment can, only do so in relation to a multiplicity of other vying identitieswithin the same individual. Paradoxically, however, although these identitiesmay concurrently exist within the same individual, they do not conflict nor share the same values, beliefs, behaviours and attitudes; all of which may be grounded in the socio-cultural experiences of the person within a particular location (Samuel & Stephens, 2000). Recognition therefore, should be made in the definition of identity that there exists a plurality of sub-identities which should recognize and include diversity of for instance, race, language, sex, gender, sexual orientation, ability or inability, impairment or work type.  A person can therefore, assume different
professional identities, contingent upon the culture and experiences in the social setting and the professional work environment (Beijaard, et.al, 2004);
contingent, also upon the dynamics of philosophies, ideologies, practices and regimes, which can be spatially and temporally networked to workplace responses, to the specific types of profession (Kostogriz and Peeler, 2004). How then is professional identity defined and what impact would this identity have on
a disabled person’s capability to work? One may ask. The answer this question is what this paper discusses, and the following sections will devote to doing that. But first we will examine what professionalism is and how this leads to the definition of professional identity.  

Professionalism and Professional Identity

Some studies claim that professionalism develops on two levels, at the structural level and attitudinal level (Dawis, England and Lofquist, 1964). At the structural level, an example can be the formal education qualifications entry requirements into the profession or the type of organization or the public standing of the organization one works in. Professionalism also occurs at an attitudinal level, for instance, the individual’s vocational sense of calling to the profession (Hall, 1968). An individual entering the profession has to undergo an external transformation to portray the deportment and etiquette required of the specific career role. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers or accountants, for instance, can easily be identified and differentiated by their manner of walking, dressing, grooming and even of talking, which is often linked to their professions. Internally, to the person, there is a development
of self-conceptualization linked with the specific professional role which will be exhibited to the society for approval and acknowledgement (McGowen & Hart, 1990). Put in another way, professionalism implies both psychological and sociological perspectives. Thus, an individual tends to develop a professional identity consequential to this sociological and psychological interactive process. Expressing one’s professional identity sometimes also, is evidenced
in perceptions of what one says one is and what one wants to become (Bejaard, et.at. 2004). Essentially, professional identity therefore, emanates from a process of developing and implementing a professional self concept to members of that profession or to the public (Dawis, England and Lofquist, 1964). 

Professional identity formation therefore, is a maturation process that commences at some stage of one’s entry into training for the profession and evolves and continues to develop into life as the individual identifies with the profession (Dawis, et.al., 1964). This process can be viewed as the experiences
that help the individual marry theory of the profession with the practice in the work environment (Dawis, et.al., 1964). It is a process of ‘fitting in’ into the profession and getting to know the traditions and ethics of a profession. Professional identity therefore, aaccording to Moore and Hofman (1988:
70) can be defined as “the extent to which someone thinks of his or her professional role as being important, attractive and in harmony with other roles”.
This definition seems fair in getting close to the understanding of what professional identity is; especially when ‘identity itself is still a poorly and fuzzily defined concept’ (Watson, 2002; Beijaard, et al., 2004). But for a disabled person, ‘fitting in’ into professions has not been easy. ‘Fitting in’
has tended to occur through negotiation and bargaining changes to the work place.

For most disabled professionals in developed countries such as England, reasonable adjustments to the work environment have to be made to allow them to work. Where it is reasonably practicable, disabled people should be allowed access practice and develop their professional identities without having to
compromise. But why should this be so? To understand why disabled persons have to negotiate change for fitness to practice, the following section presents an historical background which could shed light into this argument. 

An Historical Background; A View From Developed Countries

Prior to the rise of waged labour market and medical advances, the identity of disabled people was enhanced because they were not excluded from the mainstream social and economic activities of their families, tribes or clans (Bagilhole, 1997). Even where disabled people could not participate fully, Bagilhole, (1997) asserts, they were still able to make an economic contribution commensurate with their (dis)ability. Disabled people were identified as individually
unfortunate, and hence were embraced by society. The term disability was then born.

The term ‘disability’ was popularized during industrialization (Oliver, 1990; Mithaug, 1996). The emergence of the medical paradigm to viewing people was influenced partly by Charles Darwin’s writings in ‘The Origins of Species (Mithaug, 1996. His theory offered new insights into the application of scientific thought in social issues; i.e. by sorting the so-called strong species from weak ones in a more systematic way (Finkelstein, 1980). The theory seemingly
contributed to the dual stratification of human society into ‘the able’ and ‘the disabled’. Apparently, this set a precedent for the labour market’s adoption of the ‘fit’  and ‘unfit’ panoptic view on people (Foucault, 1991).  The industrial revolution also individualized and medicalized disability (Oliver,
1990). The medical fraternity focused on a person’s physical body and health (Davis, 1995), thus pathologising disability. Hence, Oliver (1990) observed

 The idea of disability as individual pathology only (was seen as) possible when we have an idea of able-bodiedness, which is itself related to the rise of capitalism and the development of wage labour (1990:25).

 Emphasized on a perfect physical body was set as a pre-requisite for labour market fitness for employability, high performativity and productivity (Foucault, 1991). The waged labour idea during industrialization offered different forms of dislocation for disabled people; the effect of which was diverse. For
example, the establishment of time and motion studies in emerging factory systems meant that many more disabled people were rendered unfit to participate in the gross production process because;

 The speed of factory work, the enforced discipline, the time-keeping, and production norms – were a highly unfavourable change from the slower, more self-determined and flexible method of work into which many (disabled) people had been integrated (Ryan and Thomas, 1980:101).   

 Deducing from the citation above, disabled people were thus considered unfit to practice in any job role either because they failed to meet the waged labour market demands or were deemed medically as ‘disable-bodied’. They were henceforth, effectively excluded from any form of work (Bagilhole, 1997; Mithaug,
1996; Oliver, 1990).

 With the heightening and thriving of the waged labour market, the process of exclusion of disabled people from the labour force became systematic (Bagilhole, 1997. Thus, the waged labour market era effectively relegated disabled people to the bottom rung of the labour and social ladder (Morris, 1969); in the
process, diminishing and also altering their self-identity concept. Sadly, this trend continued and the status of disabled people has not improved markedly, into current times either (Metts, 2004); even though working partnerships between disabled people and inter agency professionals seem to play a major role
in getting disabled people into work.    

Some Figures: A Global View

According to International Labour Organization (ILO) (1983), unemployment continues to be the main problem for disabled persons globally. Country data, where it exists, verifies that disabled people are less likely to access education, training and employment of any kind (Jones, 2001). When they do work,
disabled persons are more likely to be underemployed, underpaid, experience less job security and have fewer chances for advancement (Metts, 2004). It
is not surprising therefore, that an estimated 20 per cent of world’s poor are disabled persons (ILO, 1983)

 Unemployment levels among disabled persons are two or thrice times as high as for other persons (ILO, 1983).  For example, the unemployment figures for Europe in 1978 are illustrative. In 1978, the unemployment rate in both Holland and Denmark was 7% and only 11.5 % and 17.5 %, of their registered disabled
persons were able to find work (Jones, 2001).

In Finland, the same problem of unemployment of disabled persons also exists; even though Finland is considered to be a developed country which is highly advanced in terms of the treatment it offers to disabled persons (Jones, 2001).  There is recognition that, even when a special employment facility does exist and employers receive incentive for employing disabled persons, their conditions continue to get worse because there of an overall rise in unemployment
due to the perception that disabled persons are unfit for work (Jones, 2001).

In Canada, the total federal unemployment rate of disabled persons in comparison with the non-disabled is estimated at more than 10.4% compared to 6.8% of those non- disabled (Despite that legislation in Canada forbids discrimination against disabled persons, there is overwhelming evidence of cases of
inequality in treatment on the labour market as most disabled persons are considered unfit for work (Jones, 2001). In Australia, there is deliberate labour discrimination against disabled persons with regard to equal opportunities to skills and training, equal employment opportunities, equality in working conditions and career advancement (ILO, 1983). Also, many disabled persons there live below the poverty datum line (ILO, 1983: Jones, 2001). Only 53% of
disabled persons, compared to more than 80% of non-disabled persons, are employed. In the United States of America, about 50% of disabled persons have
jobs; but only 26 per cent of those considered severely disabled are employed (ILO, 1983). In the Europe, 42% of disabled persons are in employment compared to 64% of non-disabled persons (Jones, 2001). And also, significantly, in the United Kingdom, 52% of disabled persons are economically inactive, compared
to 28% of non-disabled persons (Barnes, 1992).  

The Disability (un)Employment Situation in Great Britain

Access to education and skills training of disabled people in England and Scotland appears to be low. As recently as 2007, training enrolment figures from Scotland, indicate a discrepancy in teacher training enrolment of disabled teachers and non-disabled teachers over five consecutive years. These figures
are worrying because obtaining good jobs hinges on the level of training capacity, competence and fitness to work after completion of training.

 Across Great Britain, teachers, social workers and nurses are obliged to register with a regulatory body set up by law before getting a job (Riddell, Weedon, Fuller, Healey, Kelly, Georgeson, Hurst, & Peelo, 2007). For instance, for nurses, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC, 2008) ensures that all candidates
are of ‘good health and good character’and fit for purpose (NMC, 2008: Sin, Kreel, Johnston, Thomas, & Fong. 2006). But for teaching and social work there are separate regulatory bodies in England, Scotland and Wales, with different policies in practice. However, for all professions, aspirants are required to declare a disability or medical conditions to relevant institutions (Riddell, et. al. 2007).These declarations were introduced in order to conform to
fitness to practice standards. Unfit elements were eliminated at registration.  Standards friendly to disabled people were redefined by the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 (Office of Public Sector Information (1995). But ten years later, the Disability Rights Commission (2007), found that much of the legislation and guidance that regulates the entry to medical, teaching and social work professions did not reflect provisions of the DDA, and frequently
undermined disability equality. Also, the Disability Rights Commission became aware of the complexity and irregularities of the web of rights and responsibilities of disabled people as they went through training, qualifying, registering and looking for employment and maintaining employment within these professions.

The imposition of fitness standards to work has been a cause of distortion in professional identity formation for disabled people who already face challenges of being perpetually isolated and negatively stereotyped. 

With the exception of social work and teaching in Scotland, where fitness standards now do not now seem to apply, there are still generalized ‘good health’ ‘or ‘fitness’ standards in teaching, social work, nursing and other health professions across Great Britain (Riddell, et. al. 2007; Department for Education
and Employment (DfEE) (1999). This tradition seems to continue and is reflected in fitness standards requirements that are explicitly set out in individual organization recruitment policies and procedures. For instance, The Health Professions Council has placed regulation about matching competences for individuals
wishing to train as veterinary surgeons. And this issue has been reaffirmed by the European Union/World Bank project ‘Matching competences in higher education and economy: From competence catalogue to strategy and curriculum development’ (World University Services, 2008, available ONLINE) whose long term objectives
however, fail to recognize disabled people. Using competence frameworks means employability is guided by a job description and a person specification which must be satisfied before one can be employed (Disability Rights Commission, 2007).
Although the DDA and The Disability Rights Commission guidelines tend to support disabled people in workplaces, there appears to be challenges in the implementation of the guidelines. But organisations continue to use local
policies and regulations that are discriminatory to disabled people.  This appears indicative of a deliberate attempt at excluding disabled people from active participating in work,   although advances in medicine, rehabilitation and assistive technology work have tended to increase their disabled people’s functional capabilities (Sokolowska, Ostrowska & Titkow, 1981).

  Of course, fitness standards may be necessary in some jobs such as the military, police or marines, where there generally is a tendency to exclude inappropriate
people from working in these professions. But this should not be interpreted to mean that there is no work that disabled people can do in these services.
There is a lot that disabled people can do within most professions. Discriminatory practices seem, come in the way and have tended to be generalised to the rest of the labour market.  But if DDA guidelines and other national and international policy frameworks were to be complied with, to the letter and spirit, there appears to be a capability of enhancement of individual sense of identity to anyone disabled, once employed. However, this is not adequate;
there is also need to re-address and possibly reform policy guidelines and their implementation at all levels. However, current policies and practice do not appear to be supportive of this. Disabled people continue to be denied work and development of assertive individual professional identities (Metts. 2004).  

Developing Countries: The Current Situation

By contrast, the changes that were unfolding in the industrialized world are a far cry to what was actually happening in developing countries. In South Africa, for example, 19% of disabled persons were in employment in 2001, compared to 35 % of the whole population. In some developing countries, such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Malawi, the unemployment rate is estimated to be 80% and higher (SINTEF 2004: Hill, 2005). 

 Up and until present times, the struggle to obtain work, let alone fit in to work and to develop a professional identity appears on-going, never ending
and a real challenge for disabled people in many countries (ILO, 1983). In most instances, the extremely high percentage of unemployed disabled people means that most are forced into begging for   survival or that the few who obtain jobs are forced to accept lower levels of pay (ILO, 1983: Barnes, 1993:
Jones, 2001: SINTEF, 2004). In other instances, some employers feel uncomfortable having disabled people in their workforce. Chimedza and Sithole (2000) describe a situation where at one workshop for employment creation in Harare, (Zimbabwe), and one employer called for the non-employment of disabled people.  He argued that employing one disabled person will cost him three times the actual cost of the labour he actually requires because firstly, he has to pay
the disabled person. Secondly, he has to employ a person to support the disabled person. Thirdly, he has to employ a third person who will actually do the job. His argument, in fact, seemed to emphasize that disabled persons are unfit for work.  Perhaps that also accounts for why an estimated eighty per cent of the world’s disabled persons are said to live in low income countries, generally living in rural or remote areas, where they often lack basic services.

 The predicament of disabled people being considered unfit for work and any attempt to negotiate fitness in competition with the able-bodied persons requires extra leverage (Metts, 2004). In Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa, for instance, disabled people realized this and began agitating and advocating for
better education and better skills training. And acquiring vocational or university education and training especially, seemed to offer a good leverage in vying for jobs in the local and global labour market place.

 But for a youthful disabled person, these challenges need to be circumvented as exclusionary practices are still evident.  How to negotiate fitness, to define and assert professional identity and professionalism in the job market are issues that tend to be often overshadowed; not only by the disability, but also by the attitudes of able bodied professionals in most jobs (Lord, 1981). To most, it is a double jeopardy, because in addition to having a disability,
they often have other forms of difficulties. This problem is especially compounded for marginalized and ethnic minority groups such as disabled lesbian and gay people, disabled black people or disabled women (Barnes, 1993) This scenario has tended to cause ‘a disembedding’ and deconstruction of identities with a possibility of creating new identities in work places wherever disabled people could be employed (if at all) (Bernstein, 1996:76). 

Suggested Future Trajectory

If professionals are shaped by contextual forces within particular work locations and identity formation is a result of the interaction of the psychological, sociological and philosophical aspects within these contextual forces, it is imperative to believe that negotiating the future-oriented nature of one’s professional role identity is possible and fundamental within work locations. Professional identity is much about negotiating for a future-oriented professionalism.
The emphasis should be on what professionals-in-training should become, shaped not only by the contextual factors, but also cognizant of  complex relations of power and contestation that determine the course of identity formation -and, it would be argued also- the trajectory of professional education (Duesterberg, 1998). For the new disabled professional recruit entering a preferred profession, experience of power relations and contestations within workspace locations,
can be often referred to in terms of `’fitting in’, or learning to `play the game’ (Duesterberg, 1998). ‘Fitting in’ involves negotiating ways to develop a career that satisfies both the ‘ontological self’ and professional identity. And disable people should face to that challenge firmly. Talking of ‘fitting in’ is talking of fitness and fitness standards. But how can fitness and fitness standards function on the ground, where policy making can have a real
negative impact on disabled people’s opportunities, experiences, qualifying, registering and working in professional occupations? The way in which organizational fitness policy and procedures impact on disabled people sometimes makes it very difficult to deal with professional identity issues on individual basis,
especially now when employers seem to be bringing to the fore new issues; employing personnel according to demonstrated competencies. This can partly be due to the number of factors, peer and employers’ attitudes, qualification bodies, educational institutions and other interdisciplinary agencies.

 In the UK, for instance, the complexity of the legal and policy frameworks, consisting of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) tends to affect how disabled people are treated.   Also, individual organizational professional policies and procedures and their operation in practice make it difficult for disability
discrimination and other work fitness issues to be tackled through individual cases, but rather a cooperate effort is needed to ameliorate the challenges disabled persons have in total inclusion in the work place.

In Southern Africa, the concept is taking root but regrettably this could take a long time to nurture. Disability legislation in Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa and their respective disability laws, i.e. The Disabled Peoples Act, (1992), The Employment Act (2000) (ILO, 1983) and ‘The Promotion of Equality
and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of South Africa- 2000, (Watermeyer, et.al., 2006), attempt to redress in earnest the iniquities disabled people encounter in negotiating fitness to work and negotiating professional identities, but little progress seems to be evident. Educational iniquities inherited from the colonial policies tend to interfere with efforts to effect meaningful work placement and identity negotiations for disabled professionals (Pendlebury,
1998). More efforts are needed, for instance, for teachers to negotiate more open and flexible work fitness engagements that have an impact on ‘space-time perspective of teaching’ and hence leave room for the development of individual professional identities (Pendlebury, 1998). Newly trained disabled professionals,
regardless of capacity or incapacity, need to ‘fit’ into an identity of the new African and be role models within their current socio-cultural context. 


However, there is a paucity of disabled professionals (Hurstfield, Aston, Mitchell and Ritchie (2004) and there might be need to recruit more disabled individuals into professions because according to research, a small percentage of disabled people are found in training. A recent survey done in Malawi revealed that just twenty per cent of disabled persons have access to schools and twenty six per cent of these have access to the workplace (SINTEF, 2004). Vocational
training was available to only five per cent of those who needed it. Moreover, services available are reported to be poorly funded and under-resourced (Chimedza & Sithole, 2000: SINTEF, 2004).

Ironically, access to education and training of disabled people in Scotland- a developed country also appears to be low, even though Riddell, Wilson and Tinklin (2004) suggest that there have been several improvements for disabled people in higher education in England over recent years. The Teacher Development Agency (UK) reports that there is an under-representation of disabled people in teaching (National Disabled Teacher Taskforce, 2005). Data collected by
Initial Teacher Training (ITT) providers on new entrants to ITT show that four per cent of the cohort in 2003 was disabled (National Disabled Teacher Taskforce, 2005). This is perhaps not surprising because services and facilities for disabled students in higher education are just not adequate (UNESCO, 1997); an
issue which this writer observed and is investigating for his thesis. This appears to be a situation that seriously needs rectification. How do disabled
people then justify their ability to fit in work places, claim to be professionals and develop professional identities and to contribute as change agents locally and globally, if the quality of their training is compromised by lack of services and provisions? It may be difficult to justify. It seems there is definite need for increased presence of disabled people in training services and at workplaces. There is also definite need for formulation and implementation
of disability friendly policies, procedures and practices at all levels of policy making. Otherwise, it may appear as if all discourse on equalization of access and opportunities and fitness to practice, development of professional identity for disabled people may for a long time stay in the realm of discourse. Practical negotiation for fitness to practice and the development of professional identities may also be false hope and forever remain a chimera.


In conclusion, it is the writer’s contention that this article has not exhausted the issues entirely because the issues discussed- identity, professional
identity and disability are area diverse fields of study in their own right. A nexus was established to discuss these as interconnected concepts. This paper then highlighted the level of unemployment disabled people are in as well as the challenges they face in obtaining jobs and asserting professional identities. Arguably much of the core thinking, observations and itch to highlight issues are derived from the writer’s own reflective experiences gathered
in the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe and of late, the Middle East. It is the writer’s view that, negotiating fitness to practice and the development of professional identities for disabled people appears to be frustrated by efforts of so called non-disabled people as well as the policy rhetoric around disability and the paradox emanating from policy provision and actual practice. It is noteworthy that that policy making all levels should allow, where reasonably practicable, disabled people, who demonstrate competence for the particular job role, to work and not be judged by the their disability.  


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