Our Responsibility?

From my last post http://peoplearentbroken.blogspot.com/2010/08/disability-is-responsibility-of.html, you probably figured out I don’t think it’s fair to make disability the sole responsibility of the disabled. The why of it might elude you. Disabled people are the ones with the “problems,” so shouldn’t we be the ones to solve them? They are *are* issues and if we want them addressed making it another person’s responsibility seems contrary to, well, everything upon which our culture is built.

I do agree the physical difference is contained within me, but it only becomes disability when I try to function within the society humans have constructed. Eyes were chosen as the method for decoding writing instead of something tactile, which makes me disabled. Our language is auditory, making Deaf people disabled when they try to operate in the broader world. Why is our written language visual? Writing developed when light was harder to acquire than flipping a switch would have made a tactile system useful. Why is our language exclusively auditory? A language of gesture was often used in primitive cultures for hunting.

There is no concrete, simple answer as to why society has developed in the manner it has, but it is nonetheless the society we inhabit. Unfortunately, many of its elements turn difference into disability. How does that make disability the responsibility of the disabled? How can society with one hand make me disabled and with the other hold me responsible for fixing it?

I have been pondering whether other marginalized groups are in the same position. Is racial inequity the responsibility of ethnic minorities? Clearly racism is an artifact of our social fabric that has labeled a given physical difference a marker of inferiority. WE do not expect an ethnic minority to educate an employer or check to make sure they are allowed in a public place. We do hold some expectations that they will fight the system, endure greater expense (groceries in the “ghetto”), and answer questions, but as a society we acknowledge the unfairness of such circumstances. Our insistence is that social expectations and societal structures shift to become fair.

Except, of course, when it comes to disability. I hold two elements of our social fabric responsible for this. The pioneer pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality has so shaped our thinking that we almost automatically look for how an individual is to blame for their plight. Didn’t get an A on a math test? It’s not because the previous evening your father was beating your mother and you couldn’t sleep. No, you didn’t study hard enough. Can’t walk up that flight of stairs? Well obviously it is your fault because you are the paraplegic so you figure it out. Viewed in this simplistic way, it seems patently absurd to make the person who can’t walk up the stairs in charge of the problem. Unable to morph stairs into a ramp, they can only turn away from their goal.

I also believe our social norms about appearance and behavior play a role. WE think people should look a certain way. We think they should act in a particular manner. And when they don’t? Wow. Everything about life becomes a little bit harder and that is considered perfectly acceptable. So when a disabled person comes along who may be different in manner or appearance and need unusual things, it falls into a similar category. It’s their difference and their problem to solve or not solve.

Legislation attempts to address societal inequities related to disability and has somewhat reallocated responsibility. Unfortunately, although the ADA is twenty years old, it has not changed the minds and hearts of individuals let alone our society’s nature. Even the language of the law mandating “reasonable accommodations” unless there is an “undue burden” makes disability equity something to work towards not a concrete benchmark that must be met.

Perhaps the societal shift of responsibility will take more time for the Civil Rights Act of 1965 is twenty-five years older than the ADA. Possibly in 2035 I will not live in a society that finds it acceptable to make me responsible for a physical difference I did not choose. As a sprightly sixty-three-year-old, I am certain it will radically alter my experience.

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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.

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