Blogging Against Disablism: On Assuming Impairment

  • Posted on May 1, 2010 at 10:19 PM

Executive Summary:  Disablism happens because the majority of people (US-specific) believe physical, mental or psychological differences make a person disabled.  Yet the majority has technologies and accommodations that make them able.  The reason why the “disabled” sub-population lacks appropriate technologies and accommodations is because their needs differ from those of the majority.  It is this lack of appropriate technologies and accommodations that truly disable or impair these individuals.  As a society we can allocate our resources in order enable everyone.  Will we choose to do so?

Disablism refers to the societal tendency to single out, exclude or mistreat people with physical, mental or psychological impairments because of those impairments.  But even here, in this simple definition, disablism intrudes.  The physical, mental or psychological differences are assumed to impair (meaning to lessen the quality, strength, or effectiveness of) the person with said differences.

I wish to challenge that assumption.  In the US this assumption is the foundation of the paradigm (meaning the worldview formed on the basis of beliefs, teachings, and experiences that shapes the perceptions of an individual when processing new teachings and experiences) held by the majority.  Within this paradigm it is the disability or impairment—the mental, physical or psychological difference—that impairs or lessens a person’s ability to participate in society.

Obviously!  That which is obvious is not necessarily true.

We are all more able, more empowered, and more effective with the use of technologies and accommodations that help us go about our daily tasks.  For example, we are all impaired when it comes to talking over long distances—so we use telephones, cell phones, Web cams, chat rooms, and e-mail to communicate over these distances.  People who do not have these communication technologies are accommodated through public phones and library computers.  We are all impaired when it comes to traveling over a long distance in a timely manner—so we use cars, trucks, and bicycles to span these distances.  People who do not have these transportation technologies are accommodated with buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation.  We are all impaired when it comes to learning—so we use textbooks, schools, black boards, Web sites, Power Point presentations, and other technologies to condense and teach the things we all need to learn.  People who cannot afford access to these education technologies attend public schools, visit public libraries, and get grants and loans from the federal government to attend technical colleges and universities.

Because “we all” have these impairments, the technologies and accommodations we need to improve our effectiveness are readily available.  Individuals with disabilities, as a whole, make up a significant sub-section of our population.  However, the specific technologies and accommodations that can compensate for their individual differences are not readily available, because the technologies and accommodations that would satisfy their needs are often unique to them.  At the very least, they’re not particularly useful to the majority.

That is the difference.  The impairments “we all” have our alleviated with technologies and accommodations; the impairments “they” have are not, because the technologies and accommodations “they” need are of no use to “us.”

Thus, the pervasive American paradigm is based on the “we all” standard.  If “we all” need something, then it is normal and “we all” obtain access to the technologies and accommodations we need; even if it means burying our country under a huge burden of debt.  If “some” need something to help them do what most do “naturally,” then those who with special needs are impaired or disabled and satisfying their needs is a burden “we all” won’t accept or tolerate.

Is this the land of the free—where so many are impaired and boxed in by the barriers we create as a society?  It’s time to shift our paradigm (paradigm shift: the internalization of a new belief, teaching or experience that dramatically changes the worldview of an individual).  The individual is not impaired because of their physical, mental or psychological difference; the individual is impaired because he or she lacks the accommodations or technologies that would enable him or her to participate effectively.  A lack we the people created out of our own ignorance and small-mindedness.

The truth is this: With the technologies and accommodations that are right for them, individuals with physical, mental or psychological differences can participate in and contribute to our society.  They can live not as “disabled” or “impaired” individuals, but as able, powerful, effective people—people whose differences no longer exclude them from the world of the majority.  “We all” would be richer for it, from an economic, cultural and an individual perspective.

Yet our society is engineered with the majority in mind—the technologies and accommodations we as a people devote most of our energies to are those that the majority requires and the majority demands.  Those who engineer our society impair those who need different technologies and different accommodations, often doing so unconsciously and unintentionally.  It never occurred to the majority that it should be any other way.

Is that really what we want?  Is that the people we want to be?  I know I don’t.  Do you?

8 Comments on Blogging Against Disablism: On Assuming Impairment

  1. […] hosted here at Diary of a Goldfish. I’m making my way through the entries there, and so far this one and have set off Las-Vegas-magnitude numbers of lightbulbs going off in my head. Here, though, […]

  2. Stephanie says:

    The accommodations that are becoming available through some organizations are truly amazing, I agree! It just goes to show that when you treat people like people and give them what they need, they can thrive.

    We need more of that!

  3. NTE says:

    The individual is not impaired because of their physical, mental or psychological difference; the individual is impaired because he or she lacks the accommodations or technologies that would enable him or her to participate effectively. A lack we the people created out of our own ignorance and small-mindedness.

    This is an amazing sentiment. Perfect. Just a fabulous post!

  4. Ashley says:

    The individual is not impaired because of their physical, mental or psychological difference; the individual is impaired because he or she lacks the accommodations or technologies that would enable him or her to participate effectively. A lack we the people created out of our own ignorance and small-mindedness.

    Ah, brilliant! This is the basic teaching of disability studies. put so eloquently too!

    Great points that we all need some accommodation. Technology helps us all function at our full potential. Unfortunately many people see disability related accommodations as giving people with disabilities an unfair advantage, when really it levels the playing field to give people with disabilities the resources to live full, active lives.

    What I don’t get is that disabilites are very common — and becoming more common with the number of seniors increasing. Yet most societies seem resistant to making environments more liveable.

    The built environment is constructed with the belief that those with physical disabilities will likely not participate either because they won’t want to or be able to. This is why lecterns and desks in lecture halls are often inaccessible. A professor with a mobility issue?! Who would have thought!

  5. Stephanie says:

    Thank you NTE!

    Ashley, thank you. I guess that clarifies what disability studies is about for me then. I’d never heard of it before I started blogging here and linking up with a variety of people who blog about neurodiversity. But the social model of disability really makes sense to me.

    “What I don’t get is that disabilites are very common…”

    While disabilities are common and becoming more come, a lot of people seem to think that in order to be “able” they need to reject the disability label. That is, they don’t identify themselves with disabilities.

    Another part of it is that the very concept of disabilities assumes the individual with a disability is unable and has become less because they have been dis-abled. The devaluation is built right into our language. It’s a hard thing to change when the concept is founded so deeply into the worldview held by the majority. But, I believe it can change.

  6. Ashley says:

    I also believe it can change! You are obviously a strong proponent of “person first” language. I think that’s a great start… The media need to stop saying things like “confined to a wheelchair.” As you said, this is victimizing rhetoric resulting from the perception that there is no way the person can live happily with the disability.

    I saw a great quote in a documentary that sums it up well: “The desire to live a full life does not warrant admiration.” — So this is a reaction to perceptions of a happy, active person with a disability as a hero for living well “despite” the disability.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I agree with your sentiments. The way we respond to the accomplishments of people with disabilities, not to mention what we regard as accomplishments, needs to reflect a better understanding and appreciation of people with disabilities as people.

    That being said, I find people-first language is problematic as my latest post describes.

  8. […] want to take (and not to be treated badly for choosing that). They also need to stop being seen as inherently defective or broken (and the trans community needs to stop adding to it. You, too, […]

Leave a Reply

WordPress Anti Spam by WP-SpamShield