Breaking Down Disability Stigma

How do we dismantle the stigma of disability?

In the last three episodes of Care Work, Alida gathered the perspectives of three people working to change society’s approach to accessibility and inclusivity. Tim Villegas helps school systems build support and curriculum for more inclusive classroom environments, María Emilia Lasso de la Vega normalizes inclusive design by incorporating it into every environment, and Lauren Schrero Levy works with individuals of all ages who have been sectioned off from society at large.

The work of these changemakers is necessary, at least in part, due to the stigmatization of difference—specifically of intellectual and physical disabilities. In the 1960s, Erving Goffman defined stigma as “the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance” due to identity, beliefs, or values. 

We still adhere to Victorian-era disability stigma

So deep-seated are our society’s problematic beliefs around disability that it can be jarring to discover that the practice of categorizing and segregating individuals with disabilities only developed in the mid-1800s. Until then, disability was a family affair, carefully kept out of the public eye. But amidst rapid industrialization, mass relocation to urban centers, and the subsequent increase in poverty, people with intellectual and physical disabilities were suddenly more visible.

The Victorians linked disability with poverty and moral failing, which justified their deliberate sectioning off of individuals into almshouses and prisons. Such individuals were an inconvenience, both because they reminded people of their own impending need for care and because they could not uphold a “normal” role in the society built expressly to exclude them. In our broader society, little has changed in this regard.

The close-minded closed captioning initiative

We have now had over one hundred years of pushback against not only the implementation of accessible and inclusive spaces and mindsets but the acceptance of people with disabilities as being worthy of this inclusion. Too often, the argument of whether the population in need is large enough to make a change “worth it” is used to mask an even greater argument: that people with disabilities, in and of themselves, are not “worth it.”

In her book “What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World,” Sara Hendren uses the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of the 1990s to exemplify this. Advocacy groups pushing for legislation requiring closed captioning (CC) capabilities on every new television faced down the communications industry, who argued that this implementation was too expensive to justify for the few people who would benefit from its development. They meant that the demographic closed captioning would most benefit was not their target market and, therefore, unworthy of special consideration.

Years later, after the act passed and closed captioning become a part of every household television, it was clear that widespread implementation had rendered the cost of this feature negligible. Furthermore, the numbers argument was wholly disproven. Not only do a vast number of people use CC to accommodate their hearing differences, but the feature is invaluable in many other situations, such as airing the news without sound in crowded public spaces and watching TV after our children go to bed.

The cumulative effect of disability justice

The closed captioning act is an excellent supporting document for María Emilia Lasso de la Vega’s work with inclusive spaces. Making spaces inclusive and accessible from the start—building from the foundational assumption that everyone’s needs are different rather than accommodating after the fact for the “inconvenient” needs of some—both helps everyone and furthers the overarching goal of making broadly accessible spaces required, expected, and, therefore, unremarkable. The more acceptance of these varied initiatives, the less costly they become.

The discussion around disability justice continues to expand, and this episode of the Care Work podcast is a starting point for deepening your understanding of the movement. Alida’s approach focuses on the issues we’re still facing, even as dedicated individuals like Tim, María Emilia, and Lauren work diligently to make our society a more inclusive and accessible space for all. Be sure to listen in, and catch up on any recent related episodes if you missed them.

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