“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Monday, September 13, 2004

Deconstructing disability: role perceptions/menace

In 1972, Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, wrote about what he called deviant role perceptions. These were ways in which persons with disability were sometimes perceived. The word "deviant" should be thought of in terms of differing from the norm (American Heritage dictionary). The word deviant itself can be very charged in its connotations. I thought it might be interesting to examine each of these role perceptions briefly and think about the applications for today. The following are from Wolfensberger.

2. The deviant as a menace
At the turn of the 18th to 19th century, a variety of things happened relative to persons with disability. The birth of institutions 50 years prior (a very positive thing at that time) caused parents to come forward with their children with disability so they might be served by these, "palaces . . . for the indigent and infirm, the chosen friends of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Edouard Seguin, 1854). People at the time began to wonder at all those who came forward. Then there was the urbanization of America where persons who were successful in an agrarian society were not in the cities. The IQ test identified even more with low IQ's. Although these people had always been in the community, they were somewhat hidden. However, this growth in the numbers of persons with disability appeard to be a real growth, an epidemic. At that time, the public was aroused to fear.

Persons with disability became associated with the social problems of the day (crime, degeneracy, poverty, etc.). and were vilified. The insitituions changed becoming places of segregation from the community, for protection of the community, and segregation of the sexes of those with disability, to stop their out of control reproduction.

It is important to note that there is often evil perceived in what is not understood. Evil has been perceived in persons with disability through the centuries. Earlier in this blog, we noted how the disciples of Christ asked who sinned that a particular child was born with disability. Jesus refutes this notion, however, sins of parents or of the disabled individuals themselves as the cause of disability is a wrong notion which lingers in the church today. If I feel that a person who is dysmorphic in appearance is that way as a result of sin/evil, to some degree I will treat that person as a menace.

The proof that these attitudes pervade can be seen when someone attempts to place a group home for adults with mental retardation in the community. Although these homes tend to be better maintained than the community average, fears of violence or sexual perversion on the part of the persons with mental retardation enrage the community and people attempt to keep the homes out. The thing that always amazes me, is how these perceptions of persons with disability as menace, are so close to the surface in society's thinking, and how quickly they are verbalized with little evidence to support them. People suspect that this is the way these different looking people are, and when someone mentions their irrational fear, they just pile on.

People truly do see evil in what they do not understand.


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