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Myths about disability

Back in the fall an academic email list had an interesting exchange that I've saved all these months, intending someday to do a blog entry on it. Here goes:

"In class the other day my students and I were talking about how  discriminatory treatment relates to large structural ideas in society  such as ideology or myths," a professor wrote -- the name of the prof does not matter to this discussion, which is, after all, quite universal. "As an exercise, we discussed popular  discriminatory myths about women and people of color. The students  had much to say.

"Then we turned to [a discussion of] disabled people, and it was clear that people had fewer ideas."


This is a potent topic which, I believe, has rarely if ever been fully explored.

A thought: A key reason why conversations stall when the issue of "disability discrimination" is brought up is not just that the issue is considered taboo. I believe it's a result of cultural embeddedness; the discriminatory thoughts are so deeply "embedded" in our current paradigm of social order that we don't consider them discriminatory.

For example, at one time it was a given--even among many "thinking" people--that blacks were intellectually inferior or oversexed. It wasn't until these ideas were widely and publicly challenged within intellectual and political circles that they were questioned as being other than "just the way things really are".

In a sense, that questioning had to hit some kind of critical mass before the debate could move out of estoteric circles into general society. In short, meaning debate on "disability discrimination" has yet to hit such critical mass so for many--such as those noted above and many "thinking" individuals--many of these erroneous thoughts are likewise as yet considered "just the way things really are". Consequently they don't frame the issue as one meriting critical thought. Most people don't know what to say because they weren't even aware that an "opposing" viewpoint exists.

Hopefully, discussion forums such as this one will move this discussion towards the important "critical mass".



A good classroom strategy for moving this from a list of notions to a discussion is to point out how many of these myths contradict each other--so there's the "spread effect," but then somehow the blind have super-hearing.... or parents are angels for raising disabled children, but somehow they're also angry and bitter, and selfish when it comes to school funds and programs.... or suffering makes you more spiritual, but somehow it also makes you more bitter? The same internal-contradiction phenomenon can be found in racist mythologies, of course, which strengthens the lesson that these ARE myths, following a well-known pattern of nonsense reasoning.


As a person who does have multiple disabilities (physical and deafblind), I find this reflection to be not quite accurate:

"Disabled" is "disabled" all the way down: if you have one disability, people think you have a lot more. If you are in a chair, you are probably deaf and cognitively disabled, too! [MJ note: decades ago Beatrice Wright called this "the spread effect."]

There is also an opposite myth. While I don't discount the spread effect (having experienced it myself), there is also a myth that people cannot have more than one disability (both within and outside the disability community). I think the issue is not so much spread, or disabled all the way down (or up as the case may be), but rather a myth about what disability is. Disability equates with a preset notion of inability (which for some equates with spread). However, the existance of multiple disabilities throws the preset notion of disability into a tizzy, and many, with and without disabilities, are left unable to react.


Wow! I have encountered numerous of these comments. I have to also agree about the silence when disability discrimination is talked about. I have had silence fall on a room when I have brought it up. It seems that people don't feel it is discrimination to be condescending and disrespectful...because they are trying to be 'helpful'. It is also deeply rooted in a fear different from perhaps other forms of racism because there is the thought that it is a possibility. Possibly, it makes it harder to talk about if the reality that it could happen to anyone is lurking.This thinking is of course very irrational. This idea, combined with the society’s ingrained thinking of, “ If I am disabled, I might as well be dead.” attitude, provokes people into avoiding the subject.

I have never shied away from a challenge, so I still bring up conversations of discrimination and myths. I still get silences and awkwardness even from closer friends. The more it is talked about the more people will have to listen. It is sometimes overwhelming and I get tired of the fight, but not for a long period.

I am glad I have found this forum.


And then of course there's the 'invisible' effect. You're in line and the clerk sees the able in front of you and the able in back of you... another aspect of the discussion just trailing off...


"I believe it's a result of cultural embeddedness; the discriminatory thoughts are so deeply "embedded" in our current paradigm of social order that we don't consider them discriminatory."

I call this "Indoctrination." Has been for hundreds of years, if not thousands. This is where I believe we need to start our change in "The Little Acts of Degradation." By mentioning them, over and over and over. By confrontations, by talking and writing about these "Acts..." to first get it into our own heads that they are not okay for which they number in the thousands of various ways they happen on a daily basis.

Once we all get out of our own 'indoctrination' that we are to be silent or not speak about them or not mention them in any context; can we ever begin to move outwards into the world that believes those myths.

This is just my opinion, but it's something in the way we could start some sort of change. And at this point, let's face it, we need change.

"However, the existance of multiple disabilities throws the preset notion of disability into a tizzy, and many, with and without disabilities, are left unable to react."

How very true. This puts the one with the multiple disabilities on the outside of any group. A real feeling of loneliness can set in if not corrected or acknowledged.

"We're oversexed.

We're asexual.

We're nonsexual."

Or we aren't even counted as a human being to be considered as a someone who could be offended sexually or abused sexually.

"The more it is talked about the more people will have to listen."

That's exactly the right idea as far as I'm concerned. It's the only way this will ever come out of the closet and finally be acknowledged. Once it's acknowledged both within and without the disability community (which will take time after a lifetime of indoctrination in believing those myths or not speaking out against those myths) then and only then will a real movement begin.

Again, this is just some brainstorming but I'd love to hear others ideas. Quite frankly I'm tired of all of the societal bias.

Also the unspoken, until someone up above said it, the ignorance in the disability community on some of us with more than one disability. We exist.

To wthenrest: Good for you! Now we all need to do just that; nomatter how awkward or disheartening it can feel. Even a threatening feeling can overcome us. We cannot let that stop us, feelings don't kill. People do.


I too have noticed contradictions in the "myths" regarding disabled people--the most prevalent being we're either completely helpless and dependent, or we can do everything. Not to mention we're either hopeless mental vegetables or Stephen Hawking types.

A stereotype not mentioned here (though it could probably fall under the "compensatory abilities" category) is that disabled people are born artists. We all know of the blind musician, the quadriplegic painter who paints with the brush in his mouth. Though in fairness, that's one stereotype to which I conform, being a cartoonist and a musician. Then again, I suppose these stereotypes wouldn't exist if they didn't apply to at least some of us.

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