How do you view “disability”?

1 in 5 people in the United States have a disability. [5] This number is anything but insignificant. We live in a world surrounded by “disabled” people. I put this word in quotes because of the constant change that comes along with this words definition. Depending on the environment you live in and the culture you are immersed in we all have different definitions of what this word refers to.

What do you consider a disability? Does it stop at physical limitations, or does it go on to include mental disabilities as well? Where do we draw the line at what is considered a mental disability? Does that definition include things such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD? And what do we do for the people with these issues?

In the article “Re-membering the Past” it is stated that disabilities are as much of an identifying factor as something such as race or sexuality. The authors state; “Disability, like other identity categories, is not static or natural, nor is it consistently and readily self-evident.” [1] Our disabilities are not always immediately visible, neither are our abilities. You may not immediately look at someone and realize that they have a doctoral degree, you may also not realize that they have a prosthetic leg underneath their slacks. Yet, both of those things are identifying factors for that individual.

In Disability Things, Katherine Ott discusses the importance of class, race, age, gender and

Iron lungs.jpg
Iron lungs in gym – courtesy of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center

place and how it affects our access to accommodation/treatment of disabilities. She focuses specifically on the example of children affected by polio. She uses this to delve into material culture and what it can show us about accessibility. What was used to transport the vaccines to children? Who was forced to use those iron lungs and respirators? Ott’s conclusion is that people start to care about the individuals behind the objects after they have seen and understood the object. Using this tactic shows the importance of collecting history on these individuals. Materials that surround us make our individual lives what they are. As Ott states; “The absence of or availability of a specific device can radically alter the environment and can consequently create or remove exclusion…A person in one situation is independent and in a different environment is disabled”. [2]

Our world is one that is created for the majority. There are several examples of material things that many of our lives currently revolve around, laptops, cars, ovens, etc. How successful of an independent individual would you be if one of these material things that you use each day was removed from your world? We each have a certain amount of dependence on the objects in our environments. These dependencies are most likely something we don’t even recognize until these objects are removed from our environments. Considering this thought could be an efficient way to begin making institutions and programs more accessible.

Nicole Belolan explores one of the first movements to include physically disabled

amnh wheelchairs.jpg
“Children with wheelchairs viewing Tyrannosaurus Rex  and Triceratops” 1929 – courtesy of AMNH Digital Special Collections 

school children in the 1920’s. A field trip was arranged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each aspect of this field trip was arranged by the museum starting at the transportation from their homes. These children were brought around the art museum in wheelchairs and a true effort was made to immerse them in the culture of the space. The educators working with the students on that day allowed the experience to be a very interactive one, attempting to engage the children in the stories they were telling as much as possible. The hope behind this innovating program was to encourage the students to become “active citizens in their community”. [3]

Immersive programs have continued to arise within our communities over the decades. Current efforts include the Arts and Minds program for older community members that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. This program is something that is currently held at the Studio Museum in Harlem. [4]  Patients and their caregivers are welcomed into this program to create personal art. This is done in a small, intimate setting and allows less pressure to be put on the participants. The primary focus of this program is not to cure the disease the individual has. The focus is to allow them to have an enjoyable experience for a night. This programs impact exemplifies the importance of inclusion of individuals of all abilities into our societies.

Differences are not something that should be looked down upon, they should be embraced. Our differences are what make us individuals, and what allow each of us to bring a different story into this diverse world. The collection of disability history that we have see from these authors is something that is incredibly important. Each experience from each culture is invaluable to understanding our past.

[1] Susan Burch and Michael Rembis, “Re-membering the Past: Reflections on Disability Histories”, University of Illinois Press 2014

[2] Katherine Ott, “Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History, 1700-2010”, University of Illinois Press 2014

[3] Nicole Belolan, “An ‘effort to bring this little handicapped army in personal touch with beauty’: Democratizing Art for Crippled Children at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1919-1934,” New York History 96, no. 1, 2015

[4] Contessa Gayles, “Art Program in Harlem Strives to Improve Quality of Life for Those Affected by Alzheimer’s and Dementia,” Arts and Minds: Connecting Art & Well-Being, 2013

[5] “U.S. Census Bureau”

3 thoughts on “How do you view “disability”?

  1. Your post and the readings for this week definitely got me thinking about how we define “disability.” I agree that people who are considered “disabled” are only considered that because much of our world isn’t built to be accessible to them. I liked your point that without objects we rely on every day, everyone could be considered “disabled.”

  2. I think it’s important that you linked physical and mental disabilities because there is a stigma around mental illness in our society. I like how you question your readers’ ideas about disability. It helps reinforce that disability is a social construct that has just as much to do with how we think about physical ability as about a person’s actual physical abilities.

  3. I love how your bring the idea of “hidden” disabilities into play. Too often I feel as though we tend to forget that not all disabilities are immediately apparent. As a society we need to realize that disabilities are different for different people and some have a harder time than others.

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