Disability, Handicap, Ablism, Disability Culture and Multi-culturalism
As a teacher, June signals the end of another school year, a time to reflect on accomplishments, failures, new beginnings, and new endings. This year, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the state and impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the everyday life of our society. The following are personal observations, questions and musings. I hope this will give you pause so that you can add your voice to this discussion. Happy Tenth Anniversary ADA!
The good news is there’s more positive portrayals of persons with disabilities in the media, although far too scarce. More teachers are including disability and persons with disability in their literature, music, and science curriculum. More persons are aware of and attempting to be politically correct in their language. There is far too much use of the word retard in our schools.
Far too often still, the portrayal of persons with mental illness, specifically schizophrenia and bi-polar syndrome, are portrayed as perpetrators of violence rather than victims of violence, which is far more often the case. Last week on “Leeza,” I was infuriated that a ‘thoughtful’ discussion would leave out such key issues as: persons with mental illness are seen as criminals rather than individuals with a disability. No other disability has such a stigma attached to it. Health care coverage, services, research, housing, you name it, is grossly under-funded for persons with mental illness.
On the whole, education, delivery of services, health care provision, housing, employment and communication have improved. Transportation is still grossly inadequate. More and more, the ability to take recourse for non-compliance and the ability to give incentives for compliance of the ADA is weakening. Please note that in all these observations, I live in an urban not a rural area. I also have a minor disability. Therefore, I have only minor adaptations to deal with. I am quite cognizant that there are many who struggle every day to ensure that their needs are met.
I have yet to meet an individual, especially someone outside of disability culture, who can define ablism. I have stumbled across a powerful definition (unbeknownst to the author): “Ablism (racism) is a system of advantage based on ability (race).”
“Ablist (racial) prejudice when combined with social power – access to social, cultural, and economic resources, decision-making – leads to the institutionalization of abilist (racist) policies and practices.” David Wellman (from, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.d., 1997.)
I still sense that persons in the disability community are concentrating on survival. They don’t have the luxury of time and energy to connect with other persons with disabilities different from their own. We are beginning to speak of the need and advantage of speaking on each other’s behalf and presenting a united front on issues. It is strong in our consciousness and on our conscience.
Our disability culture is growing and we are preserving our history. Sports, dance, theatre, art, and literature. We are adding our voices. This gives me the greatest pleasure and renews my spirit.
Our darkest moments lie ahead. Between Jack Kevorkian and Peter Singer, society is letting us know that disability is still a facet of life that fills most with fear, a fate worse than death. Add genetic engineering, amniocentesis, and abortion to the mix and it is clear that our ablist society is actively seeking to wipeout disability and damn the consequences.
We have yet to see the day that a qualified candidate with a known disability is elected. (It is my opinion that F.D.R. felt he had to portray an “able-bodied”, “normal” image). We must actively and assertively put ourselves in decision-making positions.
One last ponderance, where is multi-culturalism in disability? What is your definition of multi-cultural? Multi-cultural, in it’s best definition, is inclusive of all cultures. It embraces all its diversity. Are we in the disability community ready to embrace multi-culturalism? Are we afraid of being lost in all its’ layers? Do we have the obligation to speak-up against oppression wherever it may be? If we enter the mix, will we grow or become extinct? We may or may not know even in the next 10 years. What is certain is that there is much to do and much to celebrate.
Linda Larson is a teacher, mother, disability advocate and free lance writer.