Why College Students Should Take a Course on Disability Culture
by Meghan Sullivan
Imagine as a little kid, waking up one day and having an earth-shattering realization that your “normal” is very different from what your classmates, friends, and family members consider “normal.” For me, the moment I realized I was not “normal” was in kindergarten when I saw my school nurse’s face cloud with worry after I didn’t do well on my hearing test. From that moment on, my life changed in ways I couldn’t even imagine, being only 6 years old. I was whisked into a vicious cycle of doctor’s appointments, hearing tests, blood tests, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) sessions.
In the end, I was diagnosed with severe sensorineural hearing loss in one ear and slight loss in the other. Apparently, it was not “normal” for a person of such a young age to have severe hearing loss. Most people think that hearing aids or a cochlear implant “solve” being hard of hearing or deaf. But, with the type of hearing loss I have, neither of those devices would help. After getting this news, my friends, classmates, and teachers started treating me differently and I hated it. The worst thing out of all this was that I was the only person I knew who was hard of hearing. Though my mom tried everything in her power to be my advocate, to make sure I was being given the same chances as everyone else, I had many, many moments that I felt completely isolated.
I’m sure you may be wondering, “Okay, but what does all this have to do with disability culture?”
Well, shortly after I graduated high school I learned that a neighboring town had a school for d/Deaf* and hard of hearing children. What I learned a few months later in my first college ASL class was that schools like this one are crucial in promoting Deaf culture and pride, which were both foreign concepts to me.
How could I have pride in something that others often looked down at? How was it possible there was a large culture that included people with disabilities (PWDs)* in America that I had never heard of until college?
It was these two questions that made me continue with my ASL classes and also influenced my decision to take an anthropology-oriented disability culture class. With a small background in d/Deaf culture, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of American disability culture. After the first week of class I realized what I thought I knew was really just a drop in the bucket.
The professor of my disability culture class did not sugar coat anything throughout the course. She pointed out how, at many times during American history, PWDs were discriminated against, marginalized, oppressed, used as sideshow antics, sterilized against their will, and institutionalized for life. This was definitely tough for to hear, because I honestly didn’t know this went on. It seemed like all my U.S. History classes skipped the less-savory parts simply because they were unpleasant to hear. Deciding to skip over these gray-areas of America’s history doesn’t make it any less true, because scores of innocent American citizens suffered because they did not fit society’s definition of “normal.”
For instance, many people do not know that up until the 1960’s (a little over 50 years ago) it was completely normal for PWDs to be institutionalized for life and to be sterilized against their will. This terrible practice was put to an end in large part thanks to Mary Switzer, former Director of the U.S. Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and President John F. Kennedy. This then gave PWDs something they did not have before: the ability to be independent. Though many PWDs were deinstitutionalized, they were still being treated as second-class citizens with discrimination. With the passing of the Civil Rights Law in 1964, this inspired PWDs to demand equality in America.
The late 1960’s and 1970’s are well-known for being a time in American history of great social and political change—American citizens started questioning many aspects of society and they began to see how powerful “strength in numbers” could be in bringing about change. There were many movements in the 1970’s that were geared towards calling attention to the fact that PWDs were being discriminated against openly throughout America.
Change came about, but it came through at a snails pace. By the time the famous Americans with Disabilities Act, more commonly known as the ADA, was passed it was 1990. In this law, it is illegal to discriminate against PWDs in all aspects of life—jobs, schools, transportation, & all public or private places that are open to the general public (adata.org) In theory, this law is enacted to help protect the individual rights of PWDs and to guarantee they are treated with fairness and equality. In practice, that is a very different story, unfortunately.
Before I took this course, I did not realize that PWDs are still being oppressed & discriminated against, and while the ADA helps in certain aspects, there is still a LOT of progress to be made. PWDs make up the largest minority in America, because it can occur to any person of any race, any age, any socio-economic status, any gender, any sexual orientation, etc. yet many are still finding it hard to be successful and independent because of bias & prejudice.
Another thing that I’ve taken from my disability culture class is that despite the ADA being a huge victory for PWDs, there is still rampant inequality occurring in society today. This makes me sad because all PWDs want is American society to realize that just because an individual may not be able to do something the exact same way that a non-PWD can, doesn’t mean they can’t do it at all—they just do it differently, and that is perfectly fine. Many areas of American culture are almost completely absent of accurate representation for PWDs, this also has another name—ableism. Ableism by definition is “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.” (Merriam-Webster.com) Ask yourself, who was the most recent PWD to win a major award (think Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, etc.) in Hollywood? For the Oscars, the award for Best Actor/Actress has been awarded only three (3!) times to a PWD. (groundswell.org) Consequently, how many times have the American public been exposed to high-praising reviews of a specific able-bodied actor/actress who played the role of a PWD? The answer is way too many times to count.
This astounds me, because just think about it…who better to accurately portray a PWD character than a PWD actor/actress?! Unfortunately Hollywood doesn’t seem to agree. This is one of the many areas of hypocrisy that was highlighted in my course, and it definitely made more then one of my classmates begin to question our society’s ways even more. By the end of the course, we all were able to take away the fact that there is a major culture occurring in America that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition, but it should. This culture is complete with its subculture branches, slang, humor, & major icons.
American disability culture is a beautiful mixture of all types of people from different cultural backgrounds, experiences, & areas within our great nation. Like other major cultures, many PWDs are proud of who they are. Thankfully American culture as a whole has started to accept PWDs but we still need to fight and advocate for equality because there is still a great deal of inequality and unfairness. Within my lifetime, it is my dream to see the stigma and bias surrounding PWDs to be dropped and for able-bodied people to treat us like we should be—as people. I hope that you (the readers) have a chance to take a course on American disability culture as it has greatly impacted my life and I believe it could positively impact others too. Why should you consider taking a disability culture course? Simply put, the more people who learn about disability culture from a social, cultural, and academic standpoint, the higher of a chance that equality can happen within American society. \Students who take these courses ultimately are more people who can be allies, advocates, and have awareness of the existence American disability culture.
Deaf=Deaf Culture; deaf=medical diagnosis/condition
Deaf Culture is often referred to as “Capital D Deaf” so as not to be confused with “lowercase d deaf”
PWD=People With Disabilities (I decided to use people-first language, though others may prefer identity-first language, i.e. “disabled person” is more suitable)