What is normal? Who is disabled? How should we treat ourselves? Keynote speakers at the MU conference will explore tough questions.
The Alumni Memorial Union (AMU), at 1442 W. Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee, WI, is an on-campus gathering place for students, staff, faculty, alumni, and guests. As the student union of Marquette University, AMU provides a space for the community to participate in on-campus activities such as the Disability Conference.
The problem with “normal”
“The way I first became interested in disability studies was a) my parents were deaf and b) my teacher in college and graduate school, who became my very close friend, was Edward Said. Said was a very important part of my way of thinking about things, Professor Davis said.
Said, a Palestinian exile and professor of English and comparative literature, would be the first and most authoritative voice to make the subject of Palestine the subject of serious academic debate. Said would tell his graduate students at Columbia University, “’You should write about politics,’” Davis recalled. “We would say, ‘That’s easy for you to say. You have the Palestinians!
“It never occurred to me that in the way he was allied with the Palestinians, I was allied with, related to deafness,” Davis told WMJ. “It never occurred to me that this was a political issue.
“One of the things that disability studies has done is show us that people with disabilities are lumped together, form an identity and are oppressed, just like racial or religious groups. When I wrote Enforce normalityI was trying to write a book like Said’s Orientalism on disability and deafness.
When Davis began his research, he discovered “an interesting fact. The word ‘normal’ is very recent. He discovered that it entered the English lexicon around 1850.
“It raised a lot of interesting questions,” he said. You would think that the concept of “normal” has always existed, he writes. “We live in a world of standards. We consider what the average person does, thinks, earns or consumes. We rank our intelligence, our cholesterol level, our weight, our height, our libido, our body dimensions along a conceptual line from sub-normal to above-average.
“Normal” entails being within the normal range, he writes.
Before people used the concept of “normal,” people compared themselves to an ideal, he postulated. By definition, you can never have an ideal body or an ideal mind. All members of the population are below ideal, he said.
In his 2013 book, The end of normality, Davis argues that the word “normal” has been replaced with “various”. It is no longer useful to consider many aspects of identity, race for example, as ‘normal’, but the concept is still prevalent in a way that has consequences. One is our understanding of ‘handicap’ as a kind of flaw in a person.
People who use wheelchairs are only “disabled” when they are in a place that creates barriers for them, he said. “Wheelchair runners win every marathon, even if we don’t hear about it.”
Deaf people don’t consider themselves disabled any more than a Spanish-speaking person would consider themselves disabled because they don’t speak English,” he added.
Conversely, while people see disability as a small problem, affecting a few people at the margins, “nearly one-fifth of the population, or 20%, has some type of disability. And, certainly as everyone ages, the disabilities begin to accumulate. Then when you talk about family members, you’re talking about 70% to 80% of the population who have a close relative with a disability or have a disability themselves. Instead of being a niche sidebar to life, it’s actually a very important part of life.
“That’s one of the messages we try to get across in disability studies – it’s not just about a blind man walking down the street or the deaf woman around the corner. It’s really everyone.”
Misunderstanding of mental illness
Brenda Wesley’s son, now 42, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 21. It was then that she began a journey with him that introduced them to the institutions, medical professionals and services in Milwaukee that impacted his life.
“In all areas where I tried to get services for him, we really didn’t get the quality services I expected,” she said in an interview with WMJ.
“How do we perceive people when they live with these disabilities? How do we treat people?” she asked.
As a society, we don’t view mental illnesses as legitimate illnesses, she said. Her son’s condition was treated as a behavioral issue rather than a health issue that led to his incarceration, she said. “It didn’t help that he was a black man.
“Along with professionals and the wider community, when it comes to mental illness, we need to realize that these are illnesses, not just behavioral issues. If we go into it thinking it’s just a behavioral problem, we’re going to treat people differently.
Wesley also had a sister who was also living with bipolar disorder and addiction. “I lost my sister about a year and a half ago to an overdose.
“When I look at every door I’ve tried to lead my sister to and every door I’ve tried to lead my son to, what I see is that they have been hurt by the treatment they have received.”
During Thursday’s conference, “I will say, knowing that I will be in front of a lot of professionals, that they also need a lot of work to understand the impact and do no harm,” she said. “If you don’t understand your own biases around race, gender, mental illness, what kind of quality care are you going to provide people with?”
“I say to the professionals treating my son, you are dealing with a black man who has been incarcerated, who is living with a mental health disorder, who has been traumatized, so the impact of how you treat him is critical.
“I really want people to understand the impact of what we do and how we treat individuals. We can build the best buildings in the world, we can put the best programs on paper, we can brighten up space, but this the people who provide the service are the most important element.
Choose our words well
Wesley encourages everyone to think about what each of us can do now to make things better for people facing mental or physical health issues, she said.
“We need to be careful with language to remove the stigma that may prevent some people from seeking treatment,” she suggested. We need to remove the word “crazy” from our vocabulary.
“I want people to stop for a moment and think about the impact of calling someone in a wheelchair a cripple. We call addicts “junkies” and “crackheads.” These words that we use, people take them in their minds and feel they can’t move on.
“And if you’re in an environment where you hear people using stigmatizing language or you see people hurting someone, say something,” she added.
Davis also said we should be careful how we use language to avoid words that “bring moral judgment with them, like ‘That was a lame idea’ or ‘He turned a deaf ear.’
Changing hearts and minds
Davis hopes the growing field of disability studies is having a positive impact.
“I think how Said was so important in bringing people’s attention to the Middle East in a way that wasn’t cliches and stereotypes, that’s the job that a lot of us have done to make (living with a disability) more visible and mainstream. It allowed a lot of people to go ahead and start writing memoirs, novels, screenplays and becoming actors.
“I was just watching the Winter Olympics and it seemed like every commercial break featured someone with a disability. It became part of the language. Seeing the disability helps a cultural transformation.
The way you transform people’s attitudes is very difficult. You can do that through education, but not everyone goes to college. You can do this through the media, but it’s a slow process. You can see it with Muslim comics on TV, you see them and say, oh, these are people. They are not terrorists. They have lives. They have families. It’s the same with people with disabilities.
“Getting comfortable with someone who can’t use the language or uses sign language or uses a wheelchair or drools or can’t speak as clearly, getting to know them through the media allows people to accept them and make them part of their family,” Davis said.
“The way racism and prejudice works is the first thing you think of is ‘Muslim,’ ‘African American,’ or ‘Jew.’ Once you get past the point where you think “What’s your favorite type of pizza?” “, That’s the point. Not to eliminate difference because difference is interesting, but to overcome embarrassment, to overcome the fact that identity is a huge banner that prevents you from seeing the person.