Disability: A Social Construct

No one ever calls himself or herself racist, bigoted, small-minded or ignorant. Those are titles you give to others while […]

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No one ever calls himself or herself racist, bigoted, small-minded or ignorant. Those are titles you give to others while looking into their narrow perspective and sighing at their lack of understanding and tolerance for other cultures. As a woman, a member of a minority culture and an outspoken person, I have smacked those titles on unwitting people before. It was not long until I found the opportunity to slap one of those labels on myself. Namely, “ableist.”

Until recently, I was an “ableist,” someone who used nondisabled people as a bar for what’s normal. I had been raised in a household where self-efficacy, hard work and independence were valued highly. Above all, my household perceived weakness as a fault. It followed that disability was wholly undesirable and intolerable.

In my cruder moments, I thought about how “disabled people” were a “burden” to the nondisabled and “how sad it was that they would not be able to live out lives as full as mine.” I assumed that persons with disabilities were sad souls who could never reach self-actualization, self-sufficiency or independence. These thoughts were never conscious thoughts, but subconscious beliefs that I quietly held for a long time.

The time came when I was made to confront my subconscious beliefs. I started work as a personal care assistant for a permanently seated guy named Lance. Lance has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which is a genetic disease that causes motor nerves to die, leaving sensory nerves behind. Lance can feel you poke his leg, but he cannot move it away.

When I started this job, all I knew was that Lance was in a wheelchair and needed help with cooking, toileting and bathing. With what little I knew about him, I made the assumption that he was living with family, had never been married, and never had a job or any achievements under his belt. I even thought that he might be cognitively impaired.

I had not anticipated that Lance was a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics (summa cum laude from St. Thomas University). I was surprised to find that he had created a consulting business, had been married before and was living by himself in a posh, upscale apartment. I did not think that we would get in intense, deep and philosophical discussions about life, disabilities and love. Everything I ever believed to be true about people with disabilities proved to be completely and utterly wrong.

Through Lance, I realized that my misgiving toward people with disabilities was out of pure ignorance. I had believed that people with disabilities were pitiful because medicine could not fix their “broken” parts. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

People with disabilities do not want cures, pity or special treatment. They want jobs, education, housing and the transportation to get to them. Disability is no problem to the disabled; how others perceive disabilities is the real problem. In short, people with disabilities want a world where ableism gives way to acceptance.

I use terms like “persons with disability” and “permanently seated” with love and profound respect. If politically correct terms like “handicapable” make you gag—as they should until you understand where they come from—try providing personal care to a person with disabilities. It is bound to change your perspective.

Originally published in the Minnesota Daily, Sept 12, 2007. Reprinted with permission. Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]

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