Defining Disability

| December 16, 2013 | 3 Comments

Recently, a lot of media attention has been given to individuals with disabilities—particularly teenagers with Down syndrome.  There have been viral videos of these individuals scoring touchdowns, being crowned homecoming king and queen, posing with movie stars, and even creating artwork for the royal family’s nursery.  Elsewhere on the Internet, people with intellectual disabilities have been heralded over and over again as “adorable,” “innocent,” and “always happy.”

At first, I reacted positively to these stories.  After all, as someone who feels passionately about acceptance and inclusion for those with disabilities, why wouldn’t I?

photo credit: Andreas-photography via photopin cc

photo credit: Andreas-photography via photopin cc

Here’s why: Assigning a trait—any trait—to a group of people as a whole is denying each member of that group his or her individuality. So while you think that you’re just being extra-accepting by pointing out cute babies with special needs in the grocery store or going out of your way to make sure everyone knows how great you think individuals with disabilities are, you’re actually just creating a new set of subtly damaging stereotypes.  This might be an unpopular opinion, but, interestingly enough, it’s actually one shared by many parents of children who have special needs. (And for an insightful read about what it’s like to grow up with an adult relative with a disability, see this article by Kate Conway.)

I recently read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the parallels between Stowe’s treatment of blacks and our society’s perception of individuals with disabilities are striking. Obviously, Stowe’s intentions are good; after all, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written as a rallying call—an attempt to garner support for emancipation.  However, the language with which she refers to her characters can only be described as implicitly racist. Of black people as a whole, she writes: “If not a dominant and commanding race, they are, at least, an affectionate, magnanimous, and forgiving one.” These stereotypes are not inherently negative.  But, as we now know, such generalizations are—in addition to being entirely unfounded—still harmful.  While Stowe’s mindset is obviously far better than others of her time period, it is still incorrect.

Just as early Americans saw blacks as an inferior race to be enslaved and exploited, people all over the world have—up until relatively recently—seen those with disabilities as a people group that should be hidden away from society for both their own alleged good and others’.

photo credit: Camp ASCCA via photopin cc

This summer camp is a far cry from the institutions of the past | photo credit: Camp ASCCA via photopin cc

In America, we no longer automatically institutionalize all people who have special needs.  We have laws in place to ensure “a free and appropriate education” to all students, regardless of disability.  Adults with intellectual disabilities are being given more choices and independence than ever before.  But, as is often the case as a society makes strides towards empowering a previously-oppressed people group, an eagerness to display our new acceptance can lead to overcorrection and stereotypes that are—while perpetuated in the name of love and support—still a barrier to the true integration of individuals with disabilities into our culture.

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing that a hundred years ago, people with disabilities were often locked up, subjected to barbaric “therapies” and even forced sterilization, and otherwise kept as far from “normal” society as possible, positive associations with special needs are definitely encouraging.

But just like Stowe’s well-meaning description of blacks was faulty, the idea that individuals with disabilities are defined by being sweet and gentle and accepting is an erroneous generalization.  Even a seemingly positive stereotype is still a stereotype, and it’s still harmful when applied to a population as a whole. Turning someone into an “angel” or feeling the need to point out his or her “cuteness” in the street is still dehumanizing to that person as an individual.  Like the racial generalizations put forth by Stowe, this kind of overcorrection is a stage in the progression to acceptance, but it’s not the end goal–the widespread acknowledgment of people’s agency and individuality.

We’re making progress, but we aren’t there yet.  Yes, people with disabilities absolutely need love and support—as do all people—but real acceptance doesn’t flaunt itself.  Nor does it define anyone by his or her disability—regardless of the nature of the definition itself.

Note: in this post, I have used the terms “disabilities” and “special needs” interchangeably.  I understand that different populations and individuals prefer different terminology. As it is not possible to accommodate everyone’s preferred language, I hope it is clear that I am using these labels with the utmost respect for all individuals to whom they apply.

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Social Activism

Emily Hurd

About the Author ()

Emily is a special education major from a tiny town in southern Pennsylvania. She's a firm believer in the virtues of art-making, rambling discussion, and consuming excessive amounts of both coffee and tea. Her other interests include reading and writing poetry, poking around in abandoned houses, and procrastinating indefinitely. Her proudest moment involved replacing the word "oil" on construction signs with "fish" so that the signs in question read "fresh fish and chips."

Leave a Reply