Embracing the Social Model of Disability

In my last article for The Commons, I wrote about the distance I often feel from the non-autistic world, saying “[I]f you are a typically abled person, we live worlds apart.  You see, I am autistic, and there are many things that I cannot do.”  The feeling was an honest one, and yet, I’ve been troubled by these words from the time I first saw them in print.

I’ve thought long and hard about why, and I finally have an answer.  I’ve come to realize that while I sometimes experience myself as living worlds apart from non-autistic people, this feeling is not a function of my autism.  I am not actually worlds apart from anyone because I am autistic.  I feel worlds apart because the world in which I live is not yet inclusive enough to take my particular set of strengths and sensitivities into account.

In the larger world, two models of disability are always in play.  The first is the medical model, which posits that something is wrong with me, something from which I “suffer,” something that must be treated and perhaps someday “cured” by medical intervention.  In this model, my autism is a disorder, and I am somewhere “over there,” apart from regular folks, separate and unequal.

I have sometimes found myself trapped by this point of view, mainly because I have imbibed about a half-century of negative ideas about autism and the general condition of being disabled.  I had accepted without question the idea that all autistic people would rather be non-autistic, and by extension, that all physically atypical people would rather be typical.  After reading the eloquent and searing words of many disabled people, I have come to understand that this point of view is a serious distortion.  Many, many of us are proud to be who we are and would not want to be different.  The Deaf community is a perfect example of a group that embraces its experience of the world as perfectly valid and celebrates its own unique culture. The Autistic community is beginning to do the same.

Of course, there are disabilities that require medical intervention for health and quality of life.  However, not all disabilities fit this model and even when they do, they cannot be entirely defined by it.  Personally, I have moved away from the medical model, mainly because it tends to create a hierarchy in which some people’s lives have value and other people’s lives do not.  It creates a mindset in which we celebrate the lives of some people, while mourning the lives of others, simply based upon physical difference.  I do not accept this way of understanding the richness and complexity of human life.  I find it unjust and divisive.

An alternative lens through which to view disability is the social model.  According to this model, disability is a social construct.  That is, one can only be disabled in relation to an accepted norm.  So, all the things I value about myself—my acute sensory sensitivities, my deep ability to empathize, my visual acuity, my ability to enjoy silence and a slow conversational pace—become disabilities simply because I live in a culture that does not value them.  For example, because I have hyper-acute hearing, I have to wear earplugs when I go downtown or into any sound-filled environment.  Until recently, I’ve thought of my hyper-acute hearing as a problem, because I find it very hard to converse with other people in public or to concentrate in the midst of noise.

But my hearing isn’t a problem in isolation.  It’s only a problem because I live in a very loud culture—full of noise, full of words, full of TVs and radios and music playing everywhere I go.  If I lived in a quieter culture, my hyper-acute hearing would not be a problem.  In fact, when it comes to keeping people safe from harm, it would be an asset.  In the same way, if I lived in a culture that valued deliberation and a more measured verbal pace, I wouldn’t have the problem of being constantly left behind.  In a society in which impulsive action and rapid speech trump other ways of experiencing life, I cannot possibly keep up.

In the face of this mismatch, the only way for me to stay connected to others is to consistently ask for other people to adjust the environment so that I can be present.  For example, at one of the stores in town, I ask a staff person to turn off the music when I come to shop, and whomever I ask is always happy to oblige. Everyone who works at the store wants the place to be accessible to me, and they know that I cannot operate in an environment with music coming from every speaker.  Because the staff is willing to be flexible, I have full access, just like everyone else.  In stores with loud music playing, the environment is so aversive that I cannot enter, and full inclusion becomes impossible.

Moreover, when I go to my doctor’s office, I use a text-to-text device in order to communicate.  Doing so allows me to avoid coming home in a state of auditory overload.  My husband and I had to work long and hard to find a doctor open to this form of communication.  Because it was a painful, discouraging, and exhausting process, I feel especially fortunate to have happened upon a sensitive doctor.  At my last appointment, in fact, something wonderful happened.  After we had been typing back and forth for about a half hour, she said, “I’m exhausted.  I’m not used to typing so much.  Now I know how you feel with your auditory processing challenges.”

And I replied, “That’s amazing.  Writing and typing are so natural to me that I forget that other people could find them difficult.”

It was a perfect moment.  She understood me.  I understood her.  I didn’t feel worlds apart at all.  I had a different way of communicating during appointments—that was all.  My way of communicating was no better and no worse than anyone else’s.  At that moment, I became more than the sum of another person’s preconceptions.  I felt myself a part of the world, able to express myself fully, with a presence equal to that of every other human being.

So, yes, if you are typically abled, I sometimes feel that we live worlds apart.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  If we lived in a society that took human diversity for granted, that made room for difference as a deeply held value, every one of us would benefit.  Our view of one another would become much more expansive, much more respectful, and much more compassionate.  Ultimately, we might even see one other as perfectly different and perfectly human.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Embracing the Social Model of Disability first appeared at Journeys with Autism, and is republished here with permission.  Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s recently published book is The Uncharted Path: My Journey with Late-Diagnosed Autism.

on 07/22/10 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

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