As a student, it can be extremely discouraging to pursue a field in which you don’t necessarily see yourself being represented or in which you don’t feel you belong. For me, personally, this is in relation to having a physical and visible disability—cerebral palsy. My biggest challenge during my first year in undergrad was keeping up with the rest of my peers without defaulting to the constant thought of “well, I’m doing okay, considering my disability.”
The fact of the matter is, I am Disabled, and I always will be. There are modifications and adaptations that I’m going to have to make now as a current student and in the future as a speech-language pathologist. I do realize this, but I never wanted to make any excuses for myself if I were to ever feel as though I was falling behind based on limitations that are outside my control. Given my personal experiences, my heart in this field lies within empowering individuals with disabilities and communication deficits across the lifespan. However, I believe that we should all be aware of certain topics and concepts that are relevant to the professions of speech-language pathology, audiology, and everyday life.
Here are some things I wish were touched more upon during my undergraduate experience so far:
Know Our History: The Americans with Disabilities Act
For a field that largely serves individuals with disabilities, I believe it’s extremely valuable—if not crucial—to know the origin story of this group. Nothing About Us Without Us is a slogan we use to push and reinforce the importance of including Disabled people in decisions about bills, policies, and laws that will affect them.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990. ADA is a civil rights law that is intended to “protect” individuals with disabilities from discrimination in regard to employment, education, transportation, and other services. However, even with this act having been in place for 30 years now, there’s still so much to work on. The unfortunate truth is that individuals with disabilities are not always protected from discrimination or given “equal access” opportunities—despite what’s stated in the act. Similarly to common attitudes toward the Disabled community, this law is often an afterthought. We can definitely challenge unfair assumptions through educating ourselves and becoming aware of the uses and violations of this law. Accountability is absolutely necessary and can benefit all of us as a whole.
Unpacking Biases: Ableism
According to Merriam-Webster, ableism (noun) is defined as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.” Although this may seem like a pretty straightforward and simple definition, there are many layers to uncover here.
In our society, much implicit bias exists around the term disability: It’s perceived as “less than” or the “abnormal” way of living. This then contributes to the common belief that disability needs to be overcome, rather than recognized, accepted, and respected—especially in regard to laws, regulations, accommodations, and societal rights.
Ableism is also deeply embedded in everyday language. Terms such as insane, psycho, spaz, crippled, and handicapped are harmful to Disabled people. It’s my hope that, someday, we can remove such toxic terminology from our common societal vocabulary. For now, however, we can all take steps toward unlearning this and doing the work to incorporate appropriate alternatives—and educating others to do the same. Respectful substitutes could include upset, uninformed, confusing, and disabled. If you ever wonder how or why certain terms are ableist and destructive, there are many helpful resources on the internet. Disabled or not, we should all check ourselves and consistently seek opportunities to increase inclusivity.
The objectification of disability is prevalent as well—especially through mainstream media. I’ve seen countless social media posts and news stories in which individuals with disabilities are used for the benefit of those who are nondisabled. Posts of this sort could include images of a Disabled person with an ableist caption (e.g., “What’s your excuse?”; “Don’t tell me you can’t!”; or “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”) Although these posts may be well-intended, they actually perpetuate the idea that Disabled people need to be constantly “exceeding society’s expectations” in order to be seen as worthy in some way. There’s an urgent need for a shift of perspective—having a disability continues to be viewed as a “worst-case scenario,” and Disabled people continue to be seen as constantly needing assistance from others.
Models of Disability
Although there are several models of disability (e.g., social, medical, individual, human, social justice), the two most frequently discussed models are medical and social. The medical model supports the harmful narrative that disability is the “worst-case scenario” and therefore needs to be fixed. Rather than holding others or society accountable, this model inherently shifts all of the blame on the individual. The ideas of egalitarianism and justice are greatly lacking in this specific way of thinking, as it’s viewed as unnecessary. In regard to language, terms such as wheelchair bound and suffering from likely originate from the mindset of the medical model, as well.
Those who adhere to the social model believe that the problem lies in society’s inaccessibility—not in the disability itself. This inaccessibility means barriers in relation to employment, education, transportation, and accommodations. The social model also emphasizes the idea that we must change these attitudes in order to give individuals with disabilities equal opportunity. As Disabled people, we’re not mere “objects” who need to be “fixed” or “changed”; rather, we’re individuals who are merely trying to navigate a world purposely not set up for our success and functionality.
When working with clients or interacting with students, I hope that the common goal amongst many within the field surrounds ideologies related to challenging societal barriers that are placed against Disabled people. Rather than striving to “fix” or “change” the disability itself, I believe there should be efforts made to recognize and dismantle these existing barriers. Society needs to put in the work to adapt and increase accommodations for—rather than placing the responsibility and burden solely on—individuals with disabilities.
Resources and Recommendations
- Crip Camp (film on Netflix)
- Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century (Alice Wong)
- Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist (Judith Heumann and Kristen Joiner)
- Disability Implicit Association Test (Project Implicit—Harvard University)