The Shifting Sands of Disability
I have been turning this question over in my mind for the past few days since reading Estée's post What I've Learned So Far, in which she says, "I'm very interested in the rights of the disabled, a movement which has only surfaced recently despite an enormous international disabled population."
There are many complex issues under the surface of that statement, and I believe Estée is on the right track when she goes on to suggest that the recent social construction of "normalcy" is one of the main reasons why there is so little awareness of disability rights issues. In the not-so-long-ago past, humans weren't divided into "the normal" and "the disabled." Although a man might have been described as able-bodied, which generally meant that he was suitable as a laborer or a conscript, the idea of a broad category of people with disabilities was wholly unknown. Back then, you might have been blind, or deaf, or lame, or a leper, or some other simple descriptive term of that sort; but you wouldn't have been part of a disabled population.
The concept of "the normal" arose from the Industrial Age's focus on measurement and optimization. Humans came to be viewed in much the same light as factory products, expected to conform to rigid specifications and tolerances, and promptly discarded as defective if they could not do so. Eugenics was embraced as a logical outgrowth of this worldview.
As an essay on the AS-IF website puts it, in the industrialized world, disability has become society's "cupboard under the stairs where it hides away all the inconvenient minority groups."
If society had continued to view disabilities as largely immutable characteristics, like skin color or gender, I think it is likely that we would have seen the rise of a large disability rights movement in the mid-twentieth century, along with the other modern civil rights movements. However, rapid advances in medical science led instead to the widespread belief that all disabilities were medical problems in need of cures. Instead of asking how society could be changed to accommodate and respect a broader range of human diversity, most people instead asked how the disabled could be remediated to fit the expectations of society.
The issues of civil rights and equal opportunity, when they were acknowledged at all, were often criticized as a foolish diversion taking society's attention away from practical concerns, drawing away financial resources and compassion, as Susan Senator put it in a recent post.
It's understandable that many parents would feel this way, considering how hard it is to get any decent services out of our stingy bureaucracies. But it's just not true that we lack the financial resources to ensure basic rights for all. To the contrary, we are living in what is by far the wealthiest society in history. Our garbage disposals eat better than most of our ancestors did. We take it for granted that a teenager can be paid millions of dollars for throwing a ball through a hoop. And yet, when it comes to providing a decent education and respectful accommodations in the workplace and in daily life for people with physical and mental differences—a social investment that would more than pay for itself over time—many of us react as if we were subsistence farmers afraid of starving over the winter.
Our society treats disability services funding like a TV reality show where the contestant who eats the most bugs is celebrated as a winner in the competition for social services, while the other participants get a consolation prize of "compassion." Now, I don't have a problem with folks who want to be compassionate in the broad sense of showing kindness toward one another, but it's not a substitute for respecting human rights. Some really terrible things have been done in the name of compassion.
Even under the best of circumstances, the belief that society ought to treat its disabled population with special compassion leads to an insidious double standard. When a school considers the needs of a child who has no disability label and educates that child properly, or when an employer hires a worker who has no disability label on the basis of the worker's qualifications and without discrimination, these aren't seen as compassionate choices, but as fundamental rights in a civilized society. But as soon as you slap a label on that child or that worker, presto chango, what would have been their civil rights instantly transform into optional acts of compassion. Society's usual moral obligations often go missing in action when it comes to "the disabled," and doling out even the smallest crumbs is praised as an act of amazing kindness.
To sum up, disability rights, as I see it, isn't about compassionately providing special services to a needy, dependent population. It's about understanding that all of us in the modern world are dependent upon one another in even the smallest details of our lives. We rely on a complex economic system to provide our food, our clothing, our shelter, our transportation—everything but the air we breathe. Both independence and disability are artificial social constructs. From this perspective, there are no special needs; there are only human needs.