TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE HAS ABLEIST SLURS.
WHAT IS DISABILITY?
To understand what disability is and how the erasure of disabled individuals and community takes place, we have to first look into ableism. Ableism is the deep rooted prejudice against the disabled community and the rampant discrimination that they have to face when it comes to employment, accessibility of resources and finding their place in the world. One of the most extreme cases of ableism in the world is the mass murder of disabled people in Nazi Germany’s Aktion-4. Ableism stems from the belief that non-disabled or able people are far more superior to disabled folks.
The very definition of disability comes from the ableist point of view. If we look at the The World Health Organization definition, it is clear that they view disability as a hindrance or a limitation when it comes to ‘functioning in the normal world.” But what is normal? And how is this standard set? What constitutes as normal? These questions are not addressed even by the WHO.
The rest of the definition is “Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
In this definition, we can see how the it’s putting the burden on the disabled people for being disabled all the while ignoring the structure that needs to be fixed. The question here arises: is the person the problem or the society that we live in? In fact, the very word ‘disabled’ means that they’re not enough to contribute to the society, which shows that the value of humans is reduced to what economic contribution they can give to the world.
The medical model views disability as an impairment: which requires fixing. In this way, as it’s always done with the medical model, a person is always reduced to the symptoms of their conditions. The belief that people need to be fixed is inherently incorrect. People are not the sum of their symptoms.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 has defined disability as an evolving and dynamic concept. The Act also saw an increase in types of disabilities from 7 to 21. Some of which include: Autistic Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Leprosy cured people, Thalassemia, Hemophilia, Sickle Cell disease etc.
These disabilities are categorized into these main types, which are: Physical, Visual, Learning and Hearing disabilities as well as Invisible Disabilities.
Physical disabilities are those which include physiological and functional/mobility impairments. People with these disabilities might need some assistance and help with mobility. Arguably, the ones we think of immediately when someone mentions the word disability. These impairments can be a result of accidents or violence. Other medical conditions that can affect the functioning of your body parts are Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy and Cerebral Palsy (a condition in brain tissues are damaged during the fetal stage).
Visual Disabilities are those which affect the eye or which causes one to go blind. About five percent of people with visual disability are completely blind, the rest fall under the visual impairment category. These include: cataract, glaucoma, muscular degeneration etc.
Learning Disabilities are a group of conditions that affect a person’s ability to process information. These conditions include Dyslexia which is the language processing difficulty wherein a person has difficulty in processing words and sentences. This is the most common type of learning disability. Other types include: Dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers) and Dysgraphia (difficulty with writing).
Hearing Disability are those which affect the hearing of a person. These impairments can range from complete deafness or partial deafness and could be a result of many underlying conditions such as old age or diabetes or syphilis.
The term cognitive disability covers a whole variety of conditions that cause diminished cognitive and adaptive development, whether short-term or permanent. They are often caused by genetic disorders or brain injuries. These include autism, Attention deficit Hyperactive Disorder, dementia.
Invisible Disabilities is the umbrella term for the disabilities that aren’t “seen/visible”. Chronic pain, chronic fatigue and mental illnesses also come under invisible disabilities.
It is noteworthy to know that by this classification, most of the people of the world would fall under the disabled category. And this is not surprising. Then here’s something to think about: if more than half the population is disabled, then what is the world we’re living in? Who is this world (the way we know it) designed for? For a small but powerful portion of an ableist paradigm?
We’d argue that this is wrong. The world needs to get rid of this ableist structure, no, we’re not talking about adding more ramps only. The education system needs to be more accessible for ADHD and autistic students. There needs to be more employment for disabled people. We have to change the system as we know it, because the world disabled people are living in is extremely different from the ‘normal world.’
There are ways in which an individual can choose to assert their identity. Because of the range of disabilities, there’s no consensus among the disabled community as to which way they would like to refer themselves as. The two most common ways are using Person-first language or identity-first language.
Person-first language puts the person before the disability. This use of language shows that the person is not defined by their disability but rather is a part of their entire personality. This has given rise to the acronym PWD (person with disability). It was started in 1988 in the United States.
On the other hand, many individuals in the community prefer the use of Identity-first language. For many disabilities like Autism, ADHD, it means that the person cannot be separated from their disability. Lydia Brown, an autistic disability rights activist puts forth the argument,
“In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic individual” because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity…It is impossible to affirm the value and worth of an Autistic person without recognizing his or her identity as an Autistic person. Referring to me as “a person with autism,” or “an individual with ASD” demeans who I am because it denies who I am…When we say “person with autism,” we say that it is unfortunate and an accident that a person is Autistic. We affirm that the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth. In fact, we are saying that autism is detrimental to value and worth as a person, which is why we separate the condition with the word “with” or “has.” Ultimately, what we are saying when we say “person with autism” is that the person would be better off if not Autistic, and that it would have been better if he or she had been born typical.”Lydia Brown.
Disabled people have been reclaiming the word ‘disabled’. The campaign, #SayTheWord is one such initiative where disabled people are reinforcing their identity as disabled people in this world.
Ableism can be seen in the workplace interactions, in the lack of education to disabled children and the constant misrepresentation of disability in the media.
Disability in the media
Media does play an important role in the social perceptions of a community. For the representation of disabled indivduals in media, directors and writers usually have three tropes in mind:
- Inspiration Porn: The term was coined in 2012 by disability activist Stella Young. This means that a disabled individual is portrayed not as a full, living person but as an object of society that is viewed by non disabled people to feel good about themselves.
- Supercrip: This is a trope wherein a disabled individual achieves something noteworthy but their entire story is based on them dealing with their disability rather than their achievement.
- Disabled Villain: Often we see how villains are portrayed: without a body part, missing eye. This is done to show that villains look different than able-bodied individuals and thus, are bad. This invokes fear in children and makes them think that disabled people are bad.
- The Disability Faker trope: In this trope, an able-bodied person fakes a disability for different reasons. For example, in the critically acclaimed film, Andhadhun, the lead actor fakes being blind for ‘artistic’ reasons.
DISABILITY AND INTERSECTIONS
Disability, is not a different identity of its own. It is impossible not to see how disability affects different other identities of a person. A disabled person is already marginalized in this ableist world but their race, gender and caste also play a huge role in how they are perceived. If a disabled person is black, then there’s double discrimination that they have to face in the world; being black and disabled.
In India, it is not surprising to see the correlation between Dalits and disability. In one report, it is mentioned Acting simultaneously as a social and physical condition, disability – which varies in form and severity, and may be present from birth or developed during the course of a person’s lifetime – is considerably more prevalent among Dalits than upper castes: 2.4 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent. This is due to the fact that poverty has a correlation with disability. Due to lack of resources in healthcare during pregnancy, poor hygiene due to living in small cramped and shared spaces and how natural disasters affect the poor people first, causing them these conditions. Deep-rooted stigmatization of dalits also lead them to be ignored by medical communities.
Thomas J. Gerschick of Illinois State University describes that:
“Bodies operate socially as canvases on which gender is displayed and kinesthetically as the mechanisms by which it is physically enacted. Thus, the bodies of disabled people make them vulnerable to being denied recognition as women and men.”
This means that people with disabilities are often just seen as their disabilities. However, women face double stigmatization in the society as both women and disabled, in which they are seen as useless and dispensable people of the society.
THE LGBTQ Community:
According to this report, 2 in 5 Transgender adults have disabilities, 1 in 4 LGB adults in California have a disability. 40% of bisexual men, 36% of lesbian women, 36% of bisexual women,26% of gay men in Washington
reported having a disability. For the LGBTQ individuals, they have many more barriers to overcome: Limited access to health care as both disabled and LGBTQ individuals. Invisibility in both these communities: wherein they are either LGBT in the LGBTQ community or they are disabled in the disabled community. This requires them to pick one or choose one identity to be represented fully. This contributes to erasure of their identity.
MENTAL HEALTH AND THE DISABLED COMMUNITY
Another way ableism shows up is when people are conducting research on disabled people. While it’s true that disabled individuals develop mental health issues more because of the inaccessibility of resources, deep rooted prejudice and stigmatization, research reports hardly ever address the real cause of these problems: the ableist world.
One study shows that reported prevalence rates for anxiety and depression amongst people with learning disabilities vary widely, but are generally reported to be at least as prevalent as the general population (Source: Stavrakaki, 1999). But why? The reason for this could be how the education system is designed. There’s no accommodation for people with learning disabilities which could lead to higher rates of anxiety. Teachers are not taught how to teach or make education accessible for disabled children.
A study in India titled, Self Esteem, Anxiety, Depression and Stress among Physically Disabled People, reports that Physical disability creates a sense of dependence this result in frustration, stress and anxiety it leads to the low level of self esteem. The mean score of depression of physically disabled is 18.5 which are much more than the score of normal population that is 7.2. Similarly the scores of physically disabled people on anxiety scale are 15.4
which are higher than the scores of normal people which are 4.4. The mean scores of stress obtained by physically challenged are 26.8 which are higher than the mean scores of normal population that is 8.3 on the same scale.
But here as well, what is the normal standard people are comparing it to? What is normal, in this sense? The word normal is not defined, it is assumed that this world is normal the way it is.
Another issue with this research is how self-esteem is defined. While it’s easy to say that self-esteem comes from within, the reality of it is quite the opposite. We view ourselves as part of the society, and our esteem comes from how we interact with the world. So if disabled people have low self-esteem, it’s because the very world is not designed for them.
Like we have discussed throughout the article, the world is ableist. With constant misrepresentation, and finding it difficult to navigate in the ableist society, disabled people are much more marginalized and often forgotten when it comes to making policies or even representation. They find themselves making more effort in order to be seen as more than just their disabilities.
At Pause, we understand and advocate for a change in the system. We need a more disabled friendly world and we need to get challenge the capitalistic and patriarchal system. Pause for Perspective is an intersectional and a disabled friendly organization that offers mental health services. DM us on Instagram to book a session!