There is a potential downside to the previously-discussed shifts. Disabled people may seem less patient and more demanding than they once were. This is easily spun into harmful narratives about “entitlement.” Disabled people may be portrayed as selfish, whiny, and detached from the “reality” of their own limitations.
Truth be told, such criticisms and stereotyping are hardly new practices – ideas about natural limitations and the dangers of expecting too much are standard arguments that have been used against every advancement of the disability rights movement for decades.. They were invalid when initially constructed, and remain invalid today. People opposed even the most modest accessibility mandates for decades, and would have denied any right to individual accommodations, reasonable or not, if pushed too hard. The measured approach taken by the early disability rights movement paid off which means that today’s efforts can realistically and rightfully advocate for better.
It’s necessary and a net positive for people with disabilities to revisit old bargains that worked well to establish the core principles of disability rights. It’s important to learn, and to review and make updates. The culture is always changing, including…
More honesty about hardships
Another major breakthrough that laid the groundwork for modern disability culture was the idea that disabled people aren’t fundamentally sick, but rather socially oppressed. This philosophy helped move disability organizations’ and disabled people’s attention and resources away from unlikely cures and towards expanding legal rights and accessibility. Important here was the shift in focus towards more productive and promising life goals and healthier self-acceptance, from a “medical model” to a “social model” of disability.
For as necessary and helpful as that shift was, it was also often oversimplified.
By making it a social issue, the discussion around disability was limited. It nearly became a taboo to talk about one’s actual condition or admit that sometimes being disabled is awfully challenging. It was fine – even praiseworthy – to talk about hardships stemming from ableist oppression and injustice, but it wasn’t okay to complain about chronic pains, fluctuating health and stamina, or bouts of depression and other mental illnesses. Reality got lost in the intangible rhetoric.
We had to project an uncompromising advocacy edge and personal toughness to counter negative stereotypes of disabled people as fundamentally sick and fragile. To some disabled people who came of age in those formative years of empowerment, admitting anything like “weakness” continues to be frightening, and may even be seen as harmful to the community itself.
Thankfully, this dogma is softening.
The medical and social models of disability are still useful and debated with some intensity among disabled people. Many subgroups in the disability community, especially the chronically ill and mentally ill, still struggle to find their niche because of an underlying cultural reluctance to discuss any form of illness or perceived “weakness.” But it is becoming far more commonplace for people with disabilities to share their respective truths.
It’s likely that we’re witnessing a long overdue and positive course correction to the understanding that disability is both a medical and a social experience. Disabled people can be collectively worthy of rights, access, and opportunities while having a wide range of individual needs and experiences.
Acknowledgment of the width, diversity, and intersectionality of disability
At one time, disability issues were portrayed as fairly simple, even “easier” to deal with, when compared to other social justice issues. After all, the condition of a person being disabled has been far less complicated, politicized, and controversial than other issues.
Some of that perception was orchestrated by the disability community itself. The most acceptable, palatable, and “relatable” people were put forward to represent the disability community. At that time, the fight was far more concord with getting the general message through.
Luckily, this has started to change, especially as the need to identify and address specialized needs within the community has arisen. Now, with the foundation for social receptiveness laid, the differences in experiences of individuals with disabilities can be addressed.
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