by Laurie Block
ON THE IMAGE OF DISABILITY
The life that a person with a disabling condition can look forward to today is very often, though certainly not always, radically different from what it might have been just 20 years ago. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 extended to people with disabilities the civil-rights protections which have been extended to blacks, women, and minorities. It opens a broad front of new possibilities for people with disabilities, although--like other major civil rights legislative initiatives--it will take many years for the consequences to reveal themselves.
And yet when someone learns today that she will have a disability or a condition understood as disabling, when a parent-to-be learns that his child will have a physical or cognitive impairment, when television reports that a public figure has become disabled, certain specters are likely to arise--emotionally freighted, irrational, even mutually contradictory--of what the life of a person with a disability must be like.
STEREOTYPES AND CONSTRUCTIONS:
Popular culture images both reflect and affect attitudes. Representations of disability will often reflect contemporaneous ideas in medicine, science, religion, or social management, but those ideas may themselves be affected by the assumptions inherent in popular images and fictional narratives. A film story of a courageous doctor helping a lame child to walk might reflect current medical approaches to disability; the film story broadcasts those attitudes and helps to impress them on families, care-givers, and people with disabilities as well as the general public. But doctors were also themselves seeing such stories; they formed part of the evidence by which doctors determined their own status and the status of their patients with disabilities.
Six common constructions, or ways of understanding and picturing disability, have been widely shared by medical professionals, educators, public health workers, blue and white collar workers, novelists, publicists, philanthropists, and by many of those who themselves have disabilities. They have been chosen for examination in Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project because they have been powerful organizers of experience for many people over long periods.
They are polar pairs, each pair expressing the same assumptions in negative and positive modes. They are rarely found in a pure iconic state. Even mutually contradictory conceptions often overlap, or appear combined in the same historical or fictional figure, creating ambiguous but powerful images that haunt the culture for decades.
Like myth and folklore (of which they are partly made) these constructions undergo transformations. They transcend geographical boundaries. They persist across generations. They go underground, and reappear, unacknowledged, in apparently rational and value-free analyses and plans. They still have power today to alter and affect the lives of individuals with disabilities as well as the lives of their family members and care providers.
People with disabilities themselves have at various times used
and resisted the categories they were placed in for their own
empowerment: to make, insofar as they could, their own way and
their own lives.