Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Social Constructs and Real Conditions

Every now and again I come across a discussion in which a parent says that although she has heard of the idea that disability is a social construct, it doesn't make sense to her at all because her child has real problems that are not just the result of society's prejudices. If the label didn't exist, the child would still have the same physical and/or mental limitations and would have significant difficulties as a result; therefore, the child's disability is not just a social construct.

As with most misunderstandings, this is a result of words being understood in a different way than they were intended. To say that disability is a social construct, as that idea is commonly expressed, is not the same as claiming that the underlying condition is not "real." The social construct is not the condition itself, or the label, but society's attitudes toward the people who have it.

Here's an example: I am nearsighted, rather severely so. Before eyeglasses were invented, I would have been regarded as having a major disability, unless I belonged to a small isolated tribe where everyone was nearsighted, in which case I would have been normal. If I lived in a society where people knew how to make eyeglasses, but chose not to do it because they had some cultural reason for believing eyeglasses to be undesirable, I would be disabled. If I lived in a society where people who wore eyeglasses were thought to be less capable of productive work than others and were denied equal opportunity as a result of that prejudice, I would be disabled. As it happens, we have easy access to eyeglasses and contact lenses in our society, and correctable nearsightedness is not considered to be a disability. But it's exactly the same physical condition in all of these scenarios, no more and no less "real."

I could go and get LASIK surgery and be cured of my nearsightedness, assuming that the surgeon decides I am a good candidate for the procedure. I don't have to be cured, though, to participate equally in society with people who are not nearsighted. I simply need adaptive technology, that is, eyeglasses or contacts. There is no prevailing cultural attitude—no social construct—that declares nearsightedness to be a tragic abnormality resulting in a lifetime of exclusion and misery. Rather, it is just seen as one of the many possible characteristics of the human body.

Perhaps one of these days, all of the conditions that are now regarded as disabilities will be seen in the same way.

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10 Comments:

  • Right, there are two different issues that are confused.

    Down's Syndrome is clearly something that exists in nature, but there is a social construct behind Down's. How society perceives Down's and what they do about it is all part of the way it's socially constructed.

    Social constructs are a powerful thing too. A seemingly simple shift in the social construction of Down's, that of increasingly disfavoring institutionalization of people with the syndrome, is believed to have resulted in a substantial increase in the life expectancy of those with Down's.

    With autism, there's an additional dimension to its social construction: it's difficult to map it to something specific that is measurable as part of nature.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 12:34 PM  

  • Ooo- I'm using the glasses thing the next time someone gives me guff about Joey's accommodations. That's a good one- because no one perceives nearsightedness as a disability anymore (you don't need a 504 plan to be allowed to wear your glasses- though I notice it needs to be noted on health forms for school.)

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 3:39 PM  

  • How many more comparisons to things like needing glasses are going to be used to make believe disabilities don't matter, where the adverse effects are only due to society's lack of accommodation? You guys have taken the detriment to real pride that mental disability causes out of consideration totally.

    By Blogger lurker, at 3:23 PM  

  • I don't think anyone has ever suggested that disabilities don't matter. This is a common straw-man argument against the social model of disability, though.

    No one is suggesting, for example, that you should seek out disability. I'm not going to cut off an arm or a leg. But disability is a fact of life. About 25% of all people in the US are disabled in some way. It's a natural thing if you will. What's the point of whining about it?

    By Blogger Joseph, at 6:09 PM  

  • Who cares if disability is natural? Humans change natural conditions all the time. The social model of disability isn't effective enough for all weaknesses. The medical model is made of fact, and should serve people's interests.

    "What's the point of whining about it?" Well, people don't like to have mental impairments. It's commonly known that people enjoy having abilities, especially mental ones. Some don't think it is fair for some people to have immensely more ability than others. People want what others have. Many times, people want something to be done about it, and "whine" about it.

    Complain about whining to someone who has intense mental impairments and dreads it. Advocates like you hardly ever have to be in that position with the people who actually live under the conditions discussed.

    By Blogger lurker, at 7:08 PM  

  • The social model of disability isn't effective enough for all weaknesses. The medical model is made of fact, and should serve people's interests.

    The social model of disability is effective enough. It would be hard to argue, for example, that increases in the life expectancy in Down's are attributable to the medical model more than the social model, for example.

    It's also not an either-or proposition. The medical model also has its use. It depends on what we're talking about.

    It's commonly known that people enjoy having abilities, especially mental ones. Some don't think it is fair for some people to have immensely more ability than others. People want what others have.

    I fail to see how disability prevents someone from the enjoyment of having abilities.

    Complain about whining to someone who has intense mental impairments and dreads it. Advocates like you hardly ever have to be in that position with the people who actually live under the conditions discussed.

    You make far too many assumptions.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 7:31 PM  

  • Longer life spans caused by changes in living arrangements can have a logical explanation and may be due to both the medical and social model. But that isn't about gaining ability. The social model and accommodations do not bring enough actual ability. Disability does preclude the nice feeling of having an ability that is lacking. How can it not be that way? It would make no sense.

    How happy can someone be about having a low amount of ability when others have so much more of it? People don't seem to be content with intense inequality. All I base my ideas on are common reality, not some out of touch ideological tangling.

    By Blogger lurker, at 8:15 PM  

  • It's not just ideological when you've actually seen how several different cultures, or different elements of the same culture, handle the same aspects of human difference.

    At that point, it's very vivid and real and not a tiny bit ideological.

    What I get tired of are people doing a lot of hand-waving with words like "ideological" to make it sound like the differences in how people are viewed and view themselves, that I've seen with my own eyes, are nothing but some kind of abstraction, or else nothing that could possibly apply to anything beyond a certain level of "severity".

    By Anonymous Amanda, at 9:51 PM  

  • There actually is a Supreme Court case that deals with whether or not people who wear eyeglasses are protected under disability rights legislation:

    Sutton v. United Airlines
    http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/97-1943.ZS.html

    By Blogger fledchen, at 1:18 PM  

  • Thanks for the link Fledchen... our society definitely needs stronger laws against disability discrimination.

    By Blogger abfh, at 2:20 PM  

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