Disability Has A P.R. Problem

“Blindness can be reduced to a nuisance” is a tagline used by the National Federation of the Blind as shorthand for what proper accommodation can accomplish. With adequate training, adaptive technology, and alternative formats, the barriers created by a world that functions on a visual level are eliminated and only small concerns, such as taking the time to label items, remain. The visual is conveyed via other forms of sensory input making the condition not particularly disabling. The same point has been made in relation to people with mobility impairments and those who are Deaf. The social model of disability, built around the concept that the way society works is the source of disablement, furthers this notion. Living in a world where a wheelchair can go everywhere and help is available if ever needed shapes a reality in which being a wheelchair user isn’t a huge problem. Disability rights activists argue for accessibility in all things so that people with disabilities can move through the world with the ease others take for granted — do B instead of A and then everyone can play. It is a very credible line of reasoning until one considers the dirty little secret that not all characteristics of disability can be reduced by accommodation to a nuisance. How can chronic pain be made only an annoyance? What method reduces lack of energy to an inconvenience? When a psychiatric condition impacts a life, can its effects be mitigated by the equivalent of a ramp or Braille menu? As someone who lives with both blindness and chronic illness, I know the first is reducible to annoyance and the second profoundly impacts my life no matter how the world functions. Yet even I talk up accommodations whilst avoiding mention of things that cannot be resolved in the do B instead of A and everyone can play formula. As a community, we remain taciturn about the aspects of disability that aren’t… fixable. We are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that sometimes disability can be difficult no matter what anyone does. I’m pretty sure it’s a public relations matter. If we admit disability cannot be eradicated through accommodation and societal change, then why would the average non-disabled person bother? We need the persuasiveness of the absolute do B instead of A and all will be well. One can’t sell a car on its safety features by listing all the ways airbags can fail and one cannot engender profound social change by acknowledging all the ways that change will fail to fix the entirety of the problem. As a people, we want everything to appear complication-free, even when it’s not. Non-disabled people seem unable to swallow the idea that disability isn’t a lousy fate. Arguing ramps and Braille an ASL interpreters reduce that destiny to nuisance seems implausible. Convincing anyone that there is a way to accommodate pain down to an annoyance seems impossible. Perhaps the honesty of admitting disability is sometimes hard will ring true and then we can argue that it will be less horrific in a world that doesn’t function on assumptions of able bodies and “normal” minds. Yet conceding the hard aspects of some disabilities tends to evoke pity, a mindset many never leave for it is far easier to feel sorry for someone than to make the changes necessary to address the facets of disability that are resolvable. If we paint disability with the accommodation-fixes-everything brush, non-disabled people don’t believe us. If we are honest about some parts not being fixable, then non-disabled people see no reason to bother trying. Unsolvable problem meet unmovable rock. This is why I believe disability needs a P.R. guru. This post is for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 and a comprehensive listing of the blogs participating and pieces posted can be found at Diary of a Goldfish.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

3 thoughts on “Disability Has A P.R. Problem

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post ever since I first read it yesterday.

    I think what “we” need to do (as if “The Disabled” can ever be considered as a unified group — talk about herding cats!) is become clear about what, exactly, “eradicating disability” actually means.

    If that means making everything equally easy for everybody, then no, of course we won’t succeed simply by changing society’s infrastructure and attitudes. Heck, even among the able-bodied, nothing is equally easy for everybody.

    But “eradicating disability” means allowing people the opportunity to do what they can in freedom and dignity, without being vulnerable to the whims of other people, on top of the frailty of our own bodies — in other words eradicating the status of Disability as a second- or third-class state, then yes. I think it is actually possible.

    Or at least its possible to get far closer to that ideal than we’re even attempting to, now.

  2. First, Jen, let me say that I’m very glad to see you posting again. I was getting a little concerned.

    Would this be a place where the social model of disability can join medical model to accomplish what neither can on their own? It seems like the awareness benefits of the social model can complement technological advances that bring new solutions to previously “unfixable” issues. Whenever any new adaptive technology is developed, someone is saying “There is a problem here that I want to fix.”

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