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

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Deconstructing disability: Role perceptions/object of ridicule

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 role perceptions are from Wolfensberger.

5. The deviant as an object of ridicule
Elsewhere in this blog, we have discussed the film Freaks. This film used sideshow performers as the actors. It was taking these individuals who for whatever reason chose this means of livelihood and put them on the big screen. The reaction of the "normal" people attending the side show in the film provide the true indication of how these persons were portrayed. One woman screams and faints. Hardly the response one would have when visiting other parts of the circus.

The "freak show," however, was not something new even in the 1930's. Wolfensberger speaks of medieval society, or the court of Montezuma as being populated with persons with characteristics different from the norm, with these same individuals "housed after the manner of a modern park z00" (p 23).

I can remember when imbecile, moron and idiot, terms I had come to laugh at when uttered by Moe, Larry or Curly, took on a different meaning. They were actually the labels for persons with mental retardation at the time the Three Stooges films were made. Now I still love the Three Stooges, but I tend to cringe when one calls another an imbecile as I consider the use of the term in the time that those films were made. It would be like me saying, "You profoundly mentally retarded person" to someone I was upset with. Wolfensberger speaks of the "moron" jokes that were prevalent around the time of the writing of Normalization. Take your most offensive racial slur and come up with a series of jokes using that term, and you get a feel for the inappropriateness of that term to those experiencing cognitive disability.

I can remember a time when I read a newspaper article to the group of cognitively disabled friends I meet with each Sunday. We call our group the "Light and Power Company." Anyway, the article spoke of how someone referred to a member of our group (that was why I was reading the article, to help them through the offensive nature of the article) as a "retard." I was struck by how the person to whom the label was referring, said, "They shouldn't use that kind of language in the newspaper."

So chide someone if they say someone else is retarded, or is a retard. That word takes a group of wonderful people and stigmatizes them indirectly. It supports negative aspects of the social construction of who persons with disability are.


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