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

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Disability as a societal construction

I have been working on a video series about the lives of adults with disabilities. We are in the early stages, but you can get an idea of what it is about by visiting "dislife videos" at my web page, jeffmcnair.com

Anyway in the process of interviewing "Mark" one of the subjects of the movies, I asked the question, "Do you have a disability?" To me the answer is obviously "Yes" as it would most probably be for you as well. However, Mark responded, "I don't know. I try to work hard and I am not as bad as some people and I have friends. I don't know."

So there I was, Mr. Loves the Disabled People, shot down by a guy who felt he wasn't sure he had a disability. I saw him as disabled.

What was my evidence he had a disability?
Well, he had been in special education classes all his life.
His IQ was lower than the average, probably a full standard deviation lower because of the services he was receiving.
He had an assistant who came in to help him with budgeting and shopping.
He had a job coach who made an occasional appearance at his job.
He can't read very well.
His social skills are good, but not perfect.
He received social security income.

What was his confounding evidence which might cause him to wonder whether or not he had a disability?
He tries to work hard.
He has friends.
He isn't as bad as some people (the example he gave was that he didn't use bad language or start fights).
I also observe that he lives pretty much on his own.
He is able to get around the community on his own.
People care about him.
He is quick to help someone out as long as it doesn't interfere with his work hours.
He is interested in his own spiritual growth ("Jeff, do you think I am doing better than I used to be?").

It sounds trite, but I am not so sure he has a disability either.

You might reply, "Well obviously he can't do a lot of the things people without disabilities can do!" (Thanks for helping out with that comment). But I would reply that there are many things I can't do that he can do. He can bench press about 200. I can't. He can work for 11 years collecting carts at a Sam's club store, and go to work with joy, and come home fulfilled. As a university professor, I don't always feel that way. He can trust others in a way I can't. He can live without things I think I can't live without . . . and so on.

Its interesting that at the Department of Rehabilitation (a state agency which assists with jobs and job training) if you no longer need their services, you are said to have "medically recovered from your disability." I like that. So if you are a person with cerebral palsy who goes to Rehab, and they help you get a job, in their mind you no longer have a disability. You have medically recovered.

What would it take for a church to not see a person with a disability as a person with a disability? Is there the possibility that such a person could "recover" from their disability in a Christian church setting? Many of the criteria which cause a person to be labeled as disabled are irrelevant in a church setting. Must a person be able to read to be a Christ follower? What are the entry level social skills required to be a Christian? If there is a difference between the criteria for being a Christian and being a member of a church, should the criteria for being a Christian change or should the criteria for being a member of a church change?

I was once involved with a church where a 60 year old adult with mental retardation was member. He had worked at the local university for 40 years as a pot scrubber. At the church, he was "permitted" to serve communion. He was a real asset as the aluminum communion plates they used sometimes got stuck together, even during the actual communion service. He could pop them apart quickly without spilling a drop or a crumb. One day the leadership of the elder board was changed, and my friend was no longer permitted to serve communion. The reason given to me? "He has the mind of a 6 year old." All those years of competence did not dispell the societal construction that he was a disabled person, not a person.

He was seen as a retarded man, not a man.


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