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


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Stop "blaming" people with disabilities!

When you try to answer the question "What is disability?" the typical response, typical understanding is based upon two "models" of disability. The medical model says that disability is a characteristic of individuals. So I have a visual impairment or I use a wheelchair. However as research has indicated, the experience of persons with disabilities cannot be explained on the basis of their impairment. That is, there is something else which must be taken into account in understanding what disability is. The social model was developed to try to explain that. The social model says that the experience of disability is in part the experience of being discriminated against because of this characteristic one has called impairment. If we truly want to understand disability and assist those who experience disability we need to maximize a persons skills and change a discriminatory social environment.

It is interesting, however, how we have many different strategies that we use to teach people with disabilities or help them to not be limited by their impairment: medical model interventions. Yet we do next to nothing to change social environments such that people do not experience the other part of disability, discrimination: social model interventions. If for some reason you are not successful in a job, we seem to assume you were the problem and we give you more training. If you are excluded from a social environment, we assume you were the problem and try to improve your social skills. The take home lesson, is that if I experience discrimination because of a characteristic I have, the answer is to somehow fix me. I don't think we really feel the hurtfulness of that.

We need to stop "blaming" people with disabilities. You might think I am overstating this response, but when have you ever interacted with schools or human service agencies where the focus of their efforts was social environment change versus solely changing the individual with the disability? As stated, we have myriad interventions to improve the skills of individuals. Do we have any strategies that are employed to change social environments? It is as if there is no knowledge of the fact that a major understanding of what the experience of disability is, is to be discriminated against by the social environment. Many people who I have spoken to will tell me, the most difficult part of having a disability is not the disability but the way you are treated if you have a disability. Now this is a very broad statement, and there are many disabilities where there is great suffering experienced. But there are many others for which this statement is true.

But what does this have to do with the Christian community? It is arguable that efforts that people make to include persons with impairments into local churches are perhaps the ONLY efforts being made to change the social environment. Things you have read on this blog about cultural change within the church are perfect examples of this social model type of intervention. We say that we need to accept people with disabilities, as they are, and work to change the church social environment such that it is more loving of its neighbor. Can you detect the HUGE difference here? We have moved away from blaming someone for the discrimination they face, seeking to continually improve them in some way such that they might be "acceptable" the to social environment. Instead we say to the social environment, "You need to change." "When are you going to love your neighbor?"

This is an important realization.

It is we in the Christian community who should and to some degree are the only ones truly working on social environment change, seeing ourselves as the purveyors of discrimination and working toward the goals of inclusion and belonging as if we were working on an IEP for the church.
May God forgive us for our lack of love.
But may God also bless us with great progress as we seek to be the place where social model change is truly being explored, embraced and implemented!

McNair

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