Voices: Defining an individual’s worth?

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, September 13th, 2017 at 1:45 PM

Edinboro University’s Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) allows students with documented disabilities to receive proper assistance and accommodations to enhance their learning experience. In conjunction, OSD also educates able-bodied individuals about a population who has a long history of being silenced, exploited and judged. For clarity purposes, the definition of disability that I will employ is as follows: “an inability to perform a personal or socially necessary task due to an impairment or social reaction to it.”

However, OSD’s aide and inclusive programs, which foster the idea that all people with varying strengths and weaknesses can effectively participate and enrich society, was not a part of the mainstream cultural view just 47 years ago. Furthermore, the Americans with Disabilities Act, protecting people who are disabled from discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications, was passed by Congress only 27 years ago.

Up until the 1970s, America implemented “Ugly Laws” that made it illegal for individuals who were “unsightly” to appear in public. Thus, they imparted the notion that it was acceptable to not only make this targeted group outcasts, but moreover, to encourage the mentality that a persons’ appearance is congruent to their skill set, competency and most important, worth as an individual.

Unfortunately, the “Ugly Laws” were not the only socially constructed movement that aimed to pin abled versus disabled against one another to cause a great divide. This epic division started out in the early 1800s by waves of shame and guilt. This was due to the ideology that those who had a physical or mental deformity might have engaged in wrong doing in a past life to deserve a “punishment” of sorts. Therefore, people who were disabled were kept at home with their families and did not participate in the community.

Starting in the late 1800s, until the early 1950s, society switched gears when state and local administrations started building institutions to house people with developmental disabilities. Many institutions were filthy, impoverished and lacked proper care for the individuals. Yet, this physical separation continued to stigmatize this vulnerable population and further refute the fact that these people were the same as able bodied people.

In addition to the rise of institutions, an entertainment industry known as the “Freak Show” emerged, which exploited people with disabilities and deformities lasting until the 1940s. These people would be grouped together in vile vehicles to travel across the country to perform shows that showcased their abnormal physical appearance for the sole purpose of entertaining the “average” folk. Yet again, another cultural mindset that focused on exclusion rather than inclusion.

The 1960s and 1970s were the turning point in asserting that people with disabilities have all the same rights as able-bodied individuals, as well as addressing and deterring people away from the years of hateful discrimination. The change in society’s attitude towards the disabled population influenced the Americans with Disabilities Act to be passed years down the line.

Currently, in 2017, we as a nation have looked to improve the treatment and quality of life for people with all types of disabilities, evident by wheelchair access at restaurants, removing hateful laws against physical appearance, and college campus inclusivity programs, such as OSD at Edinboro.

However, the most important, innovative tool we have acquired throughout the years is knowledge and acceptance. Years ago, we lacked basic education and medical understanding of certain disabilities, that in turn warped our perception and clouded our judgment of the wonderful person behind the disability. It is imperative that we always acknowledge the person first in any scenario and do not lose our sense of humanity, yet again.

JoAllie Paluchak can be reached at voices.spectator@gmail.com. 

Tags: voices, opinion

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