Final Paper – Introduction to Disability Studies
Introduction to Disability Studies DST 200
Imagine feeling as though you are at a constant disadvantage in a world which is designed for someone else. In an ableist society, non-disabled individuals are considered the standard for the “normal” way of living, which excludes people with disabilities. People with disabilities have been discriminated against and still are to this day. Unfortunately, people with disabilities are deprived of social, economic, and educational opportunities, not due to medical conditions but rather, external social conditions. Over the past few decades, the fight for these individuals with disabilities has progressed as a result of the distinction made between impairment and disability, yet we find that their participation in day-to-day activities is still limited.
If disability can be defined as socially constructed, then the problem is not the individual’s impairment, but the way in which society depicts the individual. According to Joseph P. Shapiro’s chapter, “Tiny Tims, Supercrips, and the End of Pity,” the media plays on the viewer’s pity by portraying people with disabilities as weak and helpless. The poster child is the stereotypical image loved by Americans for its heart-wrenching and inspirational depiction of a child smiling despite what looks to be a debilitating condition. Cyndi Jones, a former March of Dimes poster child, recalls feeling like a celebrity at first, but after receiving a flyer for polio vaccinations with her picture on it, she found that she exemplified exactly what not to be. People with disabilities consider this poster child image to be an oppressive symbol. Jones, now all grown up, explained that the childhood polio which resulted in her needing a wheelchair is not tragic. Shapiro states, “Disability becomes a tragedy only when she and her husband, Bill Stothers, who also uses a wheelchair, cannot get into a restaurant or are kicked out of a movie theater because the manager decides their scooter and wheelchair make them a “fire hazard,” as happened near their home in San Diego” (Shapiro 1993, 14). Jones explains that even if a cure for her paralysis emerged, she would not take it because people with disabilities should be willing to accept their disability and understand that the way society reacts is a part of the experience. Individuals with disabilities want rights, not a medical cure. Images like that of Tiny Tim, still depicted in society today, only contribute to the discrimination against people with disabilities as incapable of providing for themselves. This poster child basically told people that if you donate some money to the cause, the pitiful children with disabilities will magically disappear. Unfortunately for these people, the children with disabilities were very much still there, with the same disability that the poster promised to cure, leaving society to believe that there was something wrong with the children and not with the irrational promise of a cure. According to Shapiro, “If science could not cure disabled people, then society would expect them to cure themselves” (Shapiro 1993, 15). In other words, people with disabilities would have to try harder to prove themselves worthy of the money from these charity organizations. With this expectation for people to overcome their disability, came the image of the “supercrip.” People with disabilities would not be deserving of respect, up until they could perform some type of courageous act beyond their limitations. Whether it be the image which evokes pity or the image which evokes inspiration, people with disabilities were and still are constantly pressured to gain a reaction from society. This constant pressure emphasizes society’s perception of people with disabilities as undeserving of acceptance in a world catered to someone else and therefore, adds to the discrimination these people face.
Society expects a person with disabilities to fit into societal structures, rather than creating structures that fit into the lives of a person with disabilities. In Julie E. Maybee’s Introduction and Theoretical Overview of Making and Unmaking Disability, she discusses the short film, The Commute in which a man is using a manual wheelchair in New York City. The man is trying to get to his daughter’s birthday party on time, but as we find, NYC does not offer this man many options. The taxi driver tells him that he is unable to pick him up and put him into the SUV, forcing the man to roll himself through the crowded city streets with a present on his lap. With no assistance, his hands become sore and he continuously drops the present. The man must take a bus and then get on and off the subway, while taking a longer route to access ramps. The short film ends with the man struggling to get on to the sidewalk with no curb-cut, but by this point it is dark outside and his daughter is already in bed. According to Maybee, “While the film is fiction, it depicts experiences that many wheelchair users have when navigating around towns and cities and using public transportation” (Maybee 2018, 2). The taxi driver who could not take the time out of his day to help the man using a wheelchair exemplifies a typical day in the life of a person with disabilities facing a world designed for non-disabled people. The lack of curb cuts on city streets and ample stairs, but distant ramps in subway stations contribute to my claim that society expects disabled people to fit into societal structures. As if the commute to get to his daughter’s birthday party was not strenuous enough, the man must bear the laughs and the whispers from the people around him, which emphasizes that disability is socially constructed. Society must question how an individual with disabilities is not subject to discrimination when its own structures and people blatantly ignore their needs.
Before the economic system of capitalism, feudalism made it possible for individuals with disabilities to participate in productive economic activity. Feudalism was based on the quality of an individual’s work, so that as long as the job was carried out with skill, it was sufficient enough. On the other hand, capitalism is based on one’s productivity, or how much he/she can get done in a certain amount of time. This new economic system denies those individuals with disabilities who are not as efficient in getting the job done, or the individuals whose bodies cannot act like machines. Maybee states, “In January 2018 in the United States, for instance, only 20.4% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 67.8% of people without disabilities” (Maybee 2018, 35). This 20.4% only considers the people with disabilities who are regarded as eligible to work. A capitalist economic system discriminates against people with disabilities through a lack of job opportunities.
Employment discrimination was outlawed through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, but to this day it is very likely that an employer takes into consideration a person’s disabilities when hiring. According to the article, “Why Don’t Employers Hire and Retain Workers with Disabilities?,” although employment rates for adults with disabilities is low, past research has credited employers as accepting of people with disabilities into their workplace. Yet, people with disabilities who seek jobs, explain that attitudes of employers act as a barrier when applying for and maintaining a job. The study in this article questioned employers known to be hesitant when hiring people with disabilities. So that these employers taking the questionnaires would not feel singled out, the questions asked about attitudes of employers as a whole. The results gave reasons as to why employers may not hire disabled workers. As Kaye et al. states, “The top three reasons, each endorsed by more than four-fifths of respondents, refer to the cost of accommodations, lack of awareness as to how to deal with workers with disabilities and their accommodation needs, and fear of being stuck with a worker who cannot be disciplined or fired because of the possibility of a lawsuit” (Kaye et al. 2011). Employers consider accommodations for workers with disabilities to be an unnecessary financial burden, which entails making the whole workplace accessible to these workers. Aside from costs of accommodations, comes the fear of more money paid for health insurance or workers compensation. Employers are often deprived of the knowledge about how to deal with disabled workers, this ignorance results from a lack of exposure to success stories of people with disabilities in the workplace. Questionnaires showed that employers fear legal liability, or the possibility of a lawsuit if they fire a worker with disabilities who cannot perform the job accordingly. These three reasons are just a few of the considerations taken by employers when hiring workers with disabilities, which depict the discrimination people with disabilities face in the workplace.
History presents us with cases in which judicial opinions act as the basis for special education law in the United States. These cases do a good job of convincing society that students with disabilities are no longer discriminated against in schools today. However, the U.S. Department of Education explains that only 3% of students with disability labels between the ages of six and seventeen are served in general education environments for the whole day and only 43% of these students for a small part of the day. In “Getting the Stories Straight: Allowing Different Voices to Tell an ‘Effective History’ of Special Education Law in the United States,” LaNear and Frattura state, “Interestingly, this practice occurs despite research suggesting that educating students in general education environments results in higher academic achievement and more positive social outcomes for students with and without disability labels” (LaNear and Frattura 2007, 88). According to the IDEIA (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act), all children should spend a significant amount of time in a general education classroom. Children learn by example, when special needs children spend all their time in a classroom with other children with special needs, they become accustomed to such a restrictive environment. According to “Making Inclusion Work in General Education Classrooms,” “Within inclusive classrooms, students with disabilities have access to meaningful, rigorous general education curricula; and special education is specifically designed instruction to assist them in maximizing their highest potential” (Algozzine et al. 2012, 478). Therefore, integration of special needs students into a general classroom allows these students to develop better social skills, while also adding diversity to the classroom. Yet, discrimination against children with disabilities allows for exclusion in the school setting. The low expectations placed on these students by society allows them to be recognized as incapable of functioning in a regular classroom setting. Algozzine et al. explains, teachers must receive the proper training for teaching disabled students alongside typically developing peers and in order to do so, they must dispel myths and misunderstandings surrounding students with disabilities. Although slow progress is being made for students with disabilities in the classroom setting, it is found that there is an over- and mis-identification of ethnically diverse and poor students as disabled in public schools (LaNear and Frattura 2007, 88). As stated in the article entitled “Overrepresentation of Minority Students in Special Education” by Mitylene Arnold and Marie Lassmann, “The notion that any one race is less able to learn is anathema to our national conscience” (Arnold and Lassmann 2003, 2003). The article explains that a child who comes from a low socioeconomic family might be considered disabled because he/she is not as knowledgeable as his/her same aged peers, who are provided with the resources to learn more. A lack of knowledge of the child’s background could cause a teacher to believe the child is language impaired; rather than, culturally different. This overrepresentation of minority students in special education affects educational equality in our country. Not only are children with disabilities a target for discrimination, but children from diverse backgrounds are being wrongly diagnosed as a result of discrimination.
Research shows that people with disabilities are discriminated against in rental housing. According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords are legally required to be fair to all individuals when accepting and denying prospective tenants. The study referenced in “Rental Housing Access & Discrimination Experienced by People with Multiple Disabilities,” used research gathered from national surveys and reports in relation with mental disability and housing. As stated, “People with PD-MI and I/DD who experience co-occurring multiple disabilities often need to navigate multiple systems and policies to obtain accessible, affordable, and integrated rental housing in the community, and they experience numerous challenges within these systems” (Hammel et al. 2017, 5). A shortage of suitable housing supports and services causes a person with disabilities to be committed to nursing homes, institutions for mental illness, or even to become homeless. As stated, “According to HUD’s 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, in January 2014, approximately 578,000 people were homeless on any given night, and, of this number, slightly more than 84,000 people were identified as chronically homeless (HUD, 2014b) (Hammel et al. 2017, 6). Also, data showed that around 234,000 people were homeless and also had SMI or chronic SUD. This struggle of people with disabilities to obtain housing is a result of their education level, employment, and economic status. Yet, how can landlords expect people with disabilities to increase their level of education in order to find a better job and increase their economic status when there is discrimination in education and the workplace for people with disabilities. Ultimately, society’s discrimination in one societal structure, leads to or is caused by discrimination in the others. A person with disabilities faces discrimination in most aspects of life all due to a stereotypical view which society challenges him/her with.
As observed in this paper, discrimination prevails in the lives of people with disabilities to this day. A disability is defined by society to be something which challenges a person every day, but we learn that the term “disability” is characterized by society and the stereotypical view that these individuals are less capable of providing for themselves. Individuals with disabilities are deprived of the social, economic, and educational opportunities for which nondisabled people do not have to struggle. The images of people with disabilities portrayed in the media result in the discrimination they experience in all aspects of life. As I mentioned, the lack of adjustments to societal structures as depicted by the man’s struggle in The Commute to simply get to his daughter’s birthday party, reluctancy of employers to hire disabled workers, low expectations of disabled students, and the difficulty in acquiring housing are all examples of this discrimination experienced. It is extremely unfair to think that a person who cannot control the condition they have, is forced to live in a world which is doing a poor job of customizing itself to fit the needs of such individuals. If society can learn to see the person before seeing the disability than people with disabilities would not feel so obligated to conform to a “normal” way of living. It is evident that no one in this world is truly perfect, so if we can view all people as being disabled in a sense, then we would not be able to single out a person with disabilities as being different.
Algozzine, Bob, Matteba Harris, Kagendo Mutua, Festus E. Obiakor, and Anthony Rotatori.
- “Making Inclusion Work in General Education Classrooms.” Education and Treatment of Children 35 (3): 477-490.
Arnold, Mitylene, and Marie E. Lassmann. 2003. “Overrepresentation of Minority Students in Special Education.” Education 124 (2): 230-236.
Hammel, Joy, Janet Smith, Jenna Heffron, and Alisa J. Sheth. 2017. “Rental Housing Access & Discrimination Experienced by People with Multiple Disabilities” M. Davis and Company, Inc., pp. 2-19. https://www.huduser.gov/portal/sites/default/files/pdf/MentalDisabilities-ShortPaper5.pdf
Jans, Lita H., Erica C. Jones, and Stephen H. Kaye. 2011. “Why Don’t Employers Hire and Retain Workers with Disabilities?” Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 21 (4): 526-536.
LaNear, John, and Elise Frattura. 2007. “Getting the Stories Straight: Allowing Different Voices to Tell an ‘Effective History’ of Special Education Law in the United States.” Education & the Law 19 (2): 87–109.
Maybee, Julie E. 2018. Draft of Making and Unmaking Disability.
Shapiro, Joseph P. 1993. “No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.” New York: Times Books, pp. 12-40.