A graphic interpretation of some social constructions of disability

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The work undertaken for my Masters degree seeks to address some of the prejudice experienced by disabled people. Society's concept of a normal body prescribes unattainable standards for people with disabilities, thereby isolating and marginalising them. Instead of accommodating these physical differences, society encourages disabled people to withdraw from society or to try to conform to able-bodied ideals and to appear 'as normal as possible'. The very physical presence of disabled people challenges these assumptions of normality. Therefore, attempts are made to cosmetically hide the offending part or exclude the person from society (e.g. a hollow shirt sleeve or 'special' school). When individuals fail to conform to the prescribed standards of normality, they face the stigma of being viewed as pitifully inferior and dependent upon their able-bodied counterparts. In this way disabled people do not 'suffer' so much from their condition, as from the oppression of able-bodied biases. Through different eyes, society could be seen as handicapped as a result of its inability to adapt to, or deal with difference. In reality, however, disabilities are experienced by many people and can range from those which are physically visible and easily identified to those less obvious, but often more debilitating such as abrasive, socially aggressive personalities or learning disabilities. It is possible, therefore, to extend the understanding of the term disability to any physical or emotional impairment that limits a person's functioning within a so-called normal society. Although many people and organisations have searched for less pejorative or negative terms to describe an impairment such as 'Very Special', 'people with abilities' or 'physically challenged', these attempts have failed to reverse prejudice. Instead, these descriptions have only re-described the emphasis on 'otherness' and 'difference'. In addition, these replaced descriptions are again associated with the same stigmas that they were intentionally designed to avoid. In the following discussion I have consciously used the word disabled or disability to refer to individuals with various disabilities which I have nevertheless defined as socially constructed. In doing so I am suggesting no pejorative associations. Through this project I wanted to explore notions of disability within various debates associated with disability and society. I have done this in the context of my own experience of disability, and my own attempts to come to terms with disability. In this sense this project represents a personal journey.

Bibliography: pages 37-38.