Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Institutionalizing people with disabilities
Guest blogger Kay Olson, a self-described thirtysomething disabled feminist who blogs at http://thegimpparade.blogspot.com/, offers her thoughts on the institutionalizing of people with disabilities, such as explored in this story on CNN.com.
Guest blogger Kay Olsonby Kay Olson
My personal thought on what happened 40+ years ago is that it was a tragedy for whole families and has undoubtedly had a lasting impact on how we view developmentally disabled people today. That is, we're still living with the legacy of those folks being segregated, made invisible, and devalued. It has impacted how we view developmental disability and the way we think of difference - we have all been taught implicitly by this history that people who are intellectually or developmentally different do not belong among us because they're dangerous, completely incompetent and lack any ability to contribute to society. And those beliefs are not true.
One example of the historical legacy: The institutionalization of developmentally disabled people in the 1950s and '60s happened before Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion, and while I absolutely support full choice in reproductive issues for women, I do believe that the very high rates of abortion of fetuses with known developmental disabilities has some connection to our social history of what has been considered the potential and worth of certain people. Instead of doctors of decades ago telling families who have just had a baby with a disability that they should institutionalize the child, some doctors now are providing the option of never having that child at all. And we don't have much of a modern legacy of integration of developmentally disabled people into our culture to balance those messages with, to make the choices a woman and her family make about these pregnancies complete choices about potential. Because of this history of institutionalization, fear and stigma are a bigger part of that choice than they might otherwise be if acceptance and providing community resources and integration were a bigger part of our social history instead.
And, you know, diagnosing developmental differences is one thing - tricky by itself - but determining how differences affect potential is even trickier. The very act of deciding a person has limited potential can limit their opportunities. I know a few people whose abilities were radically underestimated because of developmental diagnoses, and I've read of or conversed online with dozens of other disabled people whose lives have been seriously affected by judgments - faulty judgments - about their worth and ability.
Overall, I do think things are somewhat better now because institutionalization and abandonment of disabled children aren't considered the obvious solutions for families. And communities are actively struggling with the education of disabled children in public schools, which is a complicated issue but is, I think, much better than silence, shame and automatic segregation.
The daily difficulties that come from raising (or being) a developmentally disabled person and finding the resources and necessary support aren't an aspect of the disability experience I'm intimate with, but my perception is that while things have improved there is still a long way to go.
I think the main thing that nondisabled people don't necessarily know or understand is that developmentally disabled people are not this separate category of human beings. People tend to think, "We can do things. They cannot." And there's no line like that dividing all of us. There are shades of ability, varying talents that surface in surprising places. This is true for physical disabilities as well. Most of us, in the course of our lives, discover we have abilities or affinities for some things and lack talent elsewhere, so this idea that a certain class of people lack value or the ability to contribute inevitably underestimates and wastes a lot of human potential.
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