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The problem of ensuring non-discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability received a lot of attention within the recent decades. However, able-ism as a complex of behaviors, practices and policies which privilege non-disabled bodies and minds remains rooted deep in public consciousness and social models. Living with disability is a challenge, but a lot of additional problems are preconditioned with people’s attitudes, society norms and organization of society in general. Instances of able-ism can be observed in different domains of the community life and some of the dynamics of oppression of the disabled individuals can remain unnoticed.
Observations of able-ism at work
Normalization of non-disabled bodies has become so accustomed that it is sometimes difficult to notice. For example, the cultural representations which can be found in media and art make disabled people invisible. Thus, watching the Fashion Television network a few days ago, I awed at the beautiful slim bodies of the models on the runway. Only in the middle of the Fall season runway show, it dawned on me that modeling world is a cultural representation of able-ism, making disability invisible and normalizing non-disabled bodies as beautiful and attractive. When I changed the channel, I watched the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights discussing the justice bill and noticed that all of the participants were non-disabled. Therefore, disabled individuals are excluded from public domains and politics because of the social prejudices on what is considered normal, beautiful and desirable.
Whereas the absence of disability in the fashion world is based on the dominant view of what is considered beautiful, the absence of disabled in politics can be explained with the lack of access to education. Wandering across the campus, I thought that except for the two students in chair wheels, all learners were non-disabled. None of them had visual impairment because the curriculum was mostly based on reading and writing assignments. None of students had autism which requires specialized approach. Consequently, regardless of all the efforts to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disabilities, able-ism is observed within the educational domain. As to the two students in wheel chairs, they were segregated within the campus and everyone stared at them considering them as pitiable. I saw that when one of these students wanted to ascend the staircase, two or three non-disabled students asked if he needed their help, but he refused.
The efforts of colleges and universities pursuing the goals of non-discriminating students and applicants with disabilities traditionally are focused on material structures for individuals in chair wheels, such as specialized elevators and ramps near the staircases. However, there are no arrangements which would allow people with disabilities to use public transport. A person in a wheel chair cannot get into a bus and has to look for other means of transportation.
Even overcoming difficulties with transportation and material structures, people with disabilities can face even more insidious form of objectification as inferior and pathological, namely the feelings of fascination and pity elicited from non-disabled individuals. Walking in the park, I saw a woman in a wheel chair walking with her relative or friend. When they reached the staircase and were going to use the ramp, a stranger offered his support. Therefore, the passer-by presumed that a woman with disability not only could not move without a guide, but even one person accompanying her could not cope and his support was needed.
The man offering his support obviously attempted to empathize with the disabled woman. However, his attempt clearly demonstrates that he perceives a person with disability as inferior to him. The basis for this objectification of disabled as ‘helpless’ and ‘other’ can be found in the language domain and terms we use to treat them. Even though most people try to use politically correct terms, even the words ‘disabled’ and ‘disabilities’ have negative meanings. The meaning of the prefix dis- is obviously negative and the term ‘disability’ implies that the lack of disability is a norm. Taking into account the fact that the word ‘abilities’ implies not only opportunity and physical capacity, but also talents and gifts, it can be stated that even the most politically correct term can be regarded as an instance of able-ism.
Dynamics of oppression
As it can be seen form the results of observations, political, emotional and psychological violence against the individual with disabilities can be personally and institutionally-mediated and involve a wide range of dynamics of oppression. The dynamics of pathologizing the differences between disabled and non-disabled, objectification of disabled people as deviant, inferior, pitiable and less-than-human and their social and political isolation can hurt feelings of disabled people and even influence their self-perception and development as a personality.
The absence of people with disabilities in fashion shows, art, media and politics is based upon the dynamics of pathologizing their peculiar features as opposed to images which are considered beautiful and desirable. Presuming that a nondisabled body is a norm, the mass media treats disabilities as a deviation and tries to make them invisible, hiding them from the mainstream community and isolating the disabled individuals at the same time.
Able-ism in mass media influences not only self-perception of disabled people, but also the public attitude to them. Cultural representations of disabled individuals form the dominant view of what is considered desirable, beautiful and intelligent. Under the influence of these stereotypes and objectification of disabled people as pitiable and less-than-human, voters would perceive handicapped politicians as infantilized, pitiable and non-reliable, excluding them from politics and other public domains. On the one hand, the exclusion of disabled people from politics is explained with the stereotypes of voters who perceive them as inferior and weak. On the other hand, the absence of disabled individuals in politics contributes to dominant views of what features are desirable.
Due to stigmatizing stereotypes and attempts to hide disabled people from the rest of the community, the problem of non-discrimination on the basis of disabilities received proper attention only after 1950s. Regardless of certain improvements in the domain of material structures, living in the world dominated by non-disabled people still remains a challenge for people having disabilities. Due to the lack of the necessary material structures, people with special needs have poor access to education and other public facilities. The design of traditional curriculum does not allow these students to take courses. Therefore, there are no official restrictions, but there are no possibilities. The design of curriculum focuses on needs of non-disabled students and demonstrates the institutionally-mediated objectification of people with disabilities who want to receive higher education as an exception and oddity. Lacking opportunities to receive education, disabled people have only limited chances for realizing their potential.
People with disabilities who decide to receive education face the difficulties with transportation, doing the academic assignments and responding to behaviors and emotions of their non-disabled fellow students and tutors. Along with institutionally-mediated structures which limit the opportunities of disabled people to be involved into the community life and social relations, the personally-mediated dynamics of oppression can be discriminative as well.
Strangers, who do not show interest in disabled people as personalities, but offer their support when they consider it necessary, are driven by their moral obligations based upon objectification of disabled as helpless, weak and inferior. The students at campus and a passer-by in the park offer their support and do not understand that it demonstrates their attitude to a person with disability as a pitiable human being worthy of sympathy and fascination as he/she has to face a great number of challenges. These people did not have any doubts whether it is appropriate to demonstrate a disabled person that they consider him/her as other, different and pitiful human being requiring external help and guidance. Their attitudes are influenced with cultural representations of disabled people in media, art and numerous instances of able-ism they get accustomed to.
These attitudes are rooted so deep in the organization of the society, state institutions and public consciousness that a lot of instances of able-ism at work can remain unnoticed. Even the term “disabled” which is referred to individuals with disabilities and is regarded as the most politically correct one shows the dynamics of oppression of individuals with disabilities, namely their segregation from the rest of the community and pathologizing their special needs.
Sources resisting to systemic able-ism
Christine Malec in her article “The Double Objectification of Disability and Gender” and Rod Michalko in his book The Difference that Makes Disability share their personal experience of living in the world ruled by the nondisabled people and suffering from their objectification and other dynamics of oppression.
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Sharing the feelings she has when strangers stare at her or do no perceive her as a personality, Christine Malec resists to the systemic able-ism and sexualization of a female body. The author provides a valuable insight into her inner world and sheds light upon the difficulties she experiences when communicating with people who objectify her as a woman and as a person with disability (Malec 60). This article can be helpful for overcoming the stereotypes representing disabled people as pitiable creatures instead of an individual.
Developing the same theme of living with disability, Rod Michalko resists to the systemic able-ism, pointing out at the difference which a disability can make for most people (Michalko 70). Describing the moment when an ophthalmologist announced him blind, the author emphasizes that his life was not divided into two parts before and after this diagnosis. Rod’s life continued, these were people whom Rod had to deal with and organization of the society which became the main challenges on his life path.
A lot of dynamics of oppression of people with disabilities are based upon the systemic able-ism. The cultural representations and organization of the society life make disabled individuals invisible, affecting to people’s stereotypes and objectification of disabled individuals as inferior and less-than-human.
Malec, Christine. “The Double Objectification of Disability and Gender”. Canadian Woman Studies 13.4 (1993): 22-23. Print.
Michalko, Rod. The Difference that Makes Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.Print.