Self-Reliance: Fine, for the Self-Reliant

HUGH GREGORY GALLAGHER

October 16, 1991|By HUGH GREGORY GALLAGHER

CABIN JOHN — Cabin John. -- The old bad way of looking at disabled people has been replaced by a new bad way of looking at them.

The old stereotype of disability was personified by the March of Dimes poster child -- a lovely little girl, leaning on her little crutches, her legs encased in braces, rather like a handicapped Campbell Soup kid. This was meant to evoke a cloying combination of pathos, pity and money -- and it did. The misleading image this conveyed was of disabled people as lovable, perhaps, but pathetic, helpless creatures.

Nowadays, there is a new stereotype which, in its own way, is just as misleading. This portrays the disabled person as a regular guy, an able-bodied person who just happens to ride around in a wheelchair. All that keeps him from leading a full, productive life are societal obstacles: architectural barriers, discrimination in the work place. Eliminate the barriers, end the discrimination and the problems of the handicapped will be solved.

By this image, disabled people are seen as victims of discrimination in a civil-rights sense. This is the image which has been embraced by the leaders of the disability-rights movement.

The efforts of the disability-rights movement, making use of this civil-rights model, have achieved a great deal for disabled people. Accessible public transportation, ramps, curb-cuts, reserved parking, TDY for the hearing-impaired, Braille signs for the blind -- these are just some of the recent developments that make it easier for more disabled people to hold down a job and to move into the mainstream of society.

Last year the Congress, responding to the appeal of this vision of disability, approved the Americans with Disabilities Act, as sweeping a piece of civil-rights legislation as has ever been written. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives as well as liberals supported it. President Bush was proud to sign it into law at a joyful celebration of hundreds of disability-rights activists held on the White House lawn.

The political appeal of this concept of disability is easy to understand. It fosters self-reliance, a la Ralph Waldo Emerson; it proffers a relatively easy ''solution'' to the ''problem'' posed by disabled people; and, what really lights up the eyes of the conservatives, it promises to get disabled people off the welfare rolls.

There are, however, two serious drawbacks to this ''self-reliance'' vision of the disabled:

The first is that it ignores the terrible and continuing financial costs associated with severe disability. Thanks to developments medical science over the last generation, for the first time, infants with severe birth defects, persons with extremely high levels of spinal injury and other such severely traumatized persons can expect a normal life span. The costs associated with the continuing medical services, equipment and attendant care required to assure these people even a minimal standard of living are very high.

Serious disability is time-consuming, exhausting, emotionally devastating and costly. There are very few families with the financial -- to say nothing of the emotional resources -- to cope unassisted with severe disability. With the breakdown of the family structure, particularly in the poorer segments of society, the number of disabled people and their families needing help is increasing.

These severely disabled people are full American citizens and their condition is the human condition. In a just society surely their expenses should be seen as a shared responsibility.

The second drawback to the disability-rights model concerns the impact it can have upon the individual who is severely disabled. Reducing the problems of disability to societal obstacles, ignores, even denies, the extraordinary physiological and psychological demands which severe disability places upon an individual, whatever the accessibility of the social environment. Disability is damaging to one's self-esteem, it works havoc with one's relationships and can do irrevocable harm to an entire family's life.

There is a lot of stress, pain and infection involved in severe disability. In spite of their best efforts, many disabled people see their condition progressively worsen; they find themselves facing life of increasing helplessness and dependency. It is not surprising that the level of alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide and mental distress among the severely handicapped is high.

The self-reliance model of disability says that once societal barriers have been removed, then handicapped persons will take their place as full productive citizens with jobs, living independently in full self-reliance. And this has happened -- as barriers are removed, ever more handicapped people have come into the work place.

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