Societal attitudes towards developmental disabilities

Throughout history, people with developmental disabilities have been viewed as incapable and incompetent in their capacity for decision-making and development. Until the Enlightenment in Europe, care and asylum was provided by families and the church (in monasteries and other religious communities), focusing on the provision of basic physical needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Stereotypes such as the dimwitted yokel, and potentially harmful characterisations (such as demonic possession for people with epilepsy) were prominent in social attitudes of the time.

The movement towards individualism in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the opportunities afforded by the Industrial Revolution, led to housing and care using the asylum model. People were placed by, or removed from, their families (usually in infancy) and housed in large institutions (of up to 3,000 people, although some institutions were home to many more, such as the Philadelphia State Hospital in Pennsylvania which housed 7,000 people through the 1960s), many of which were self-sufficient through the labour of the residents. Some of these institutions provided a very basic level of education (such as differentiation between colours and basic word recognition and numeracy), but most continued to focus solely on the provision of basic needs. Conditions in such institutions varied widely, but the support provided was generally non-individualised, with aberrant behaviour and low levels of economic productivity regarded as a burden to society. Heavy tranquilisation and assembly line methods of support (such as ‘birdfeeding’ and cattle herding) were the norm, and the medical model of disability prevailed. Services were provided based on the relative ease to the provider, not based on the human needs of the individual.

Ignoring the prevailing attitude, Civitans adopted service to the developmentally disabled as a major organizational emphasis in 1952. Their earliest efforts included workshops for special education teachers and daycamps for disabled children, all at a time when such training and programs were almost nonexistent. The segregation of people with developmental disabilities wasn’t widely questioned by academics or policy-makers until the 1969 publication of Wolf Wolfensberger’s seminal work “The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models”, drawing on some of the ideas proposed by SG Howe a hundred years earlier. This book posited that society characterises people with disabilities as deviant, sub-human and burdens of charity, resulting in the adoption of that ‘deviant’ role. Wolfensberger argued that this dehumanisation, and the segregated institutions that result from it, ignored the potential productive contributions that all people can make to society. He pushed for a shift in policy and practice that recognised the human needs of “retardates” and provided the same basic human rights as for the rest of the population.

The publication of this book may be regarded as the first move towards the widespread adoption of the social model of disability in regard to these types of disabilities, and was the impetus for the development of government strategies for desegregation. Successful lawsuits against governments and an increasing awareness of human rights and self-advocacy also contributed to this process, resulting in the passing in the US of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act in 1980.

From the 1960s to the present, most states have moved towards the elimination of segregated institutions. Along with the work Wolfensberger and others including Gunnar and Rosemary Dybwad, a number of scandalous revelations around the horrific conditions within state institutions created public outrage led to change to a more community-based method of providing services. By the mid-1970s, most governments had committed to de-institutionalisation, and had started preparing for the wholesale movement of people into the general community, in line with the principles of normalization. In most countries, this was essentially complete by the late 1990s, although the debate over whether or not to close institutions persists in some states, including Massachusetts.

It could be argued that we still have a very long way to go before people with such disabilities are seen as full citizens of society. Person Centred Planning and Person Centred Approaches are seen as methods of addressing the continued labelling and exclusion of socially devalued people, such as people with a developmental disability label, encouraging a focus on the person as someone with capacities and gifts, as well as support needs.

My Personal Opinion On The Way People Look At Individuals With Disabilites

We as a Society have a habit of looking at Individuals who are different from ourselves as “not normal”, who are we to define who or what is considered “normal”?

We all have some sort of disability, whether it be we talk to fast or to slow, maybe we have troubles hearing things, writing, or maybe the way we interact with others etc.

I personally view all individuals as unique and it may only be my opinion but I feel that if we judge everyone that is different from what we consider to be “normal” when will that judgment turn back on ourselves?

Being an advocate for individuals with disabilities is a very rewarding task, for someone who has no one to stand up for them or just needs someone else to help, and advocate can have a positive impact on the lives of those whom they help.

I was given the opportunity to be an advocate for someone with severe mental disabilities and i was more than willing to be there for her every step of the way. The individual i was an advocate for could not speak so she voiced what she wanted through sign language (she did not know sign language so between her and myself, we developed signs so that she could communicate with me) and i fought for everything she wanted. Her wants and dreams to many of us might have been small but to her they were her whole life. All she wanted was the right to go swimming or to the movies etc, basically she wanted the right to live, and after many of months of fighting the community as well as her family, we achieved her goals and dreams! Today she is happy, i check on her every now and then and she still communicates with me in her own specials way. Her parents have also informed me that she is in better shape than she has ever been and they have never seen her smile so much!

Just knowing that i helped an individual with disabilities achieve her wants and dreams (however little we might see them), that is a big enough reward for me…

The next time you see someone who needs help, whether they have a disability or not, ask them if you can lend a hand. Watch the smile that comes across that individuals face. Just knowing that someone is willing to lend a hand, and that someone out there cares, can improve someone’s life in ways that are without words.

People With Disabilities Want To Live Life

People with disabilities live in a world designed primarily for the able-bodied. People with disabilities want to live life no differently than anyone else. They want to be able to go shopping, go to the movies, go out to eat, work, and enjoy life, fully realizing that must be done within the boundaries of their limitations.

Adapt and adjust becomes the mantra of a person living with a disability. People with disabilities may be forced to change careers or not work at all. They may be forced to relinquish some of their independence.

There are experiences some able-bodied people may take for granted which people with disabilities must forgo. Disabled people may miss out on:

  • the joy of rough-housing with children
  • playing competitive sports
  • traveling
  • long road-trips

What can be more frustrating than harsh realities are subtle realities for people with disabilities. Living with disability is difficult but can sting even more when people encountered are:

  • impatient
  • rude
  • insensitive
  • inconsiderate
  • pessimistic
  • unhelpful

Impatient people try to rush people with disabilities through life.

Inconsiderate people can be found using handicapped bathroom stalls and handicapped parking spots, facilities specifically designated for people with disabilities. Inconsiderate people do not hold doors open, a simple action that can make things much easier for a disabled person.

Rude and insensitive people are often found staring at people with disabilities. They seem to not like what they see, or imagine themselves in the role of the disabled person. It creates an uncomfortable situation unless you ignore the person who is staring.

Demanding people and those who lack understanding about the realities of your disability can also be provoking.

Pessimistic people can annoy and be hurtful. Pessimistic people focus on the negative aspects of having a disability instead of trying to build up, encourage, and praise the accomplishments of people with disabilities. Pessimistic or negative people don’t want to learn about the realities of living with disability. They have preconceived ideas and often treat physically disabled people as if they are faking or lazy. Even worse, negative people sometimes treat physically disabled people as if they have no abilities at all.

Unhelpful people are yet another category of people who can annoy and frustrate disabled people. For able-bodied people, most tasks are effortless. The same task for a disabled person is perhaps an impossibility. Changing lightbulbs or air conditioner filters, scrubbing showers, getting a large load of groceries – it’s just part of daily living.

What you can control, whether you are able-bodied or disabled, is yourself. All humans face challenges, it’s just that people with disabilities face different challenges. You will not rid the world of impatient, rude, insensitive people, but you can control how you react to them.

  • Impatient people cause you to be more patient.
  • Insensitive people cause you to be more sensitive.
  • Negative people cause you to react with positivity.

For each negative person you encounter, you have many more positive encounters. Surround yourself with people, things, and experiences which make you feel good and do good.

After all, just because you have a disability does not mean you deserve any less!

Getting To Know A Disabled Person

When you first meet someone who is blind, deaf, or in a wheelchair, what is your initial reaction? Curiosity? Sympathy? Awkwardness? If you experience any of these emotions, you are not alone. Chances are you don’t regularly associate with someone who is disabled, so these feelings are quite common.

My best friend whom i have known for many many years has been blind since birth, I have watched her encounter a wide range of reactions, from curious stares when she walked down the street with a cane or holding someone’s arm, to amazement at being able to feed and dress herself. Most people don’t intend to be rude or insensitive, but just aren’t sure what to expect. Here are four points to keep in mind if you should happen to meet a disabled person.

1. Disabled people can lead active lives. With few exceptions, a disability does not prevent someone from working, raising a family, or taking part in social activities. Many sports and recreation programs have been adapted to accommodate a person with a disability, including baseball, golf, water skiing, biking, and swimming. Instead of concentrating on the disability, look at the person the same way you would any other acquaintance.

2. It’s all right to ask questions. Many people are afraid of offending someone by asking about their disability. When meeting anyone for the first time, it’s natural to be curious about who they are, where they’re from, and what they do for a living.

The same is true for a disabled person. Asking questions is usually acceptable, as long as you use common sense. Don’t, for example, ask a blind person how he/she feeds and bathes himself/herself. Instead, find out what equipment or techniques he uses in his/her job and at home, how he/she gets around town, how does Braille work, etc.

3. Offer assistance when necessary. You see a woman in a wheelchair having trouble entering a building or negotiating steps. You’d like to help, but don’t want to embarrass her. What should you do?

It’s usually appropriate to lend a hand if someone is having obvious difficulty, but keep in mind that not everyone will be willing to accept your help. It’s not much different than pulling over and offering assistance to a motorist with a flat tire. Unless the woman in the wheelchair is in danger, it isn’t necessary to press the issue if they refuse your help. You did your part.

4. Remember that we all have obstacles to overcome. No matter who we are, each of us has a weakness or challenge to face. How do you feel when you are treated differently for being bald, short, or heavyset? Like you, a disabled person would much rather be accepted for who they are, rather than be pitied or shunned because of a disability.

Meeting someone with a disability doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience. Asking questions, offering assistance, and putting yourself in their shoes can go a long way toward recognizing them as people with normal thoughts and feelings who just happen to have a disability. Who knows? You might make some new friends in the process. I know I have…

Freedom Of Expression For Individuals With Disabilities

For many years now it has been the mission of Disability Advocates to protect and advance the rights of adults and children who have disabilities so that they can freely exercise their own life choices, enforce their rights, and fully participate in their community life.

Why is it that, just because some people see someone with a disability they think that they must not know what is best for them and they need someone to look out for them because they don’t really know what they want and what they really need? We forget that people are people and we all have wants, needs and dreams not matter if we have a disability or not. Having a disability does not take away from an individual being able to dream and feel. Sit back and look around you, if you had someone on an hourly basis telling you when you had to bath, go to the bathroom, when you had to sit, stand, eat, watch television, read a book etc, how would you feel? If someone took away your ability to dream, voice what you wanted to do that you haven’t yet, how would you feel? Then if you found some way to finally get across to someone what you wanted to do, what if they looked at you like you were crazy and said “you can’t do that, what if you get hurt, I’m just looking out for your best interests, really”, how bad would that break your spirits? There are some individuals with serious disability’s that are unable to make their own decisions and they do need someone to help make their decisions for them and I agree with that, but at what point does it change from looking out for that individuals best interests into living their life for them and no longer allowing them the right to an opinion on their own life.

Respect For Those With Disabilities

Henry (2007) explains; one reason that some people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities is that they’re afraid that they will “say the wrong thing”. However, that’s not a big deal to most people with disabilities. What’s important is that you respect the person and see them beyond their disability (Henry, 2007, p. 2). Henry (2007) also gives an example of the un-comfortableness that one can feel when trying to find the right words to say; In the movie “I am Sam”, the main character, Sam, is an adult with a developmental disability. An initially insensitive attorney says to Sam: “I need that list of names from you—people who can testify that you’re a good father despite your handicap.” “I didn’t mean your handicap, I meant your disability.” “The fact that you’re retarded.” “That’s not the right word.” “I don’t know what to call you!” To which he replies: “Sam, You can call me Sam” (Henry, 2007, pp. 3-4).

Henry (2007) states that; one basic question many people have is: “What is appropriate terminology”, for example, disability, impairment, or handicap? When you’re working with someone, you can ask what terminology he or she prefers. When you’re speaking in public or writing, you’ll need to do a little research to ensure that you use widely-accepted terminology and avoid potentially offensive terminology (Henry, 2007, p. 4). According to Henry (2007); the most important thing to know when interacting with people with disabilities is that they are people. And just like all people, they are very different and unique, including being different in how they are with disability issues (Henry, 2007, p. 4). Some people prefer different terms, some get very upset about terminology, and some don’t care. Some people get very upset about accessibility barriers and lash out at those responsible; some are very patient with accessibility barriers and are appreciative and supportive of people and organizations that are trying to fix barriers. Some people really appreciate the opportunity to talk about their disability and educate people about accessibility issues, and others don’t like to talk about it at all. After you know someone a little, you might ask, “I’m curious about your using a wheelchair. Are you comfortable talking about it, or would you prefer not to?” (Henry, 2007, p. 4).

Societies Responsibility To Individuals With Disabilities

Fabila de Zaldo (1999) states that; The World Health Organization calculated that in 1990 there were 500 million people with disabilities in the world, and that by the year 2000 the number would reach 600 million. According to these figures, 10 percent of the total world population suffers from some type of physical, mental, or sensory disability. This is a serious problem, especially in developing countries where the greatest numbers of individuals with disabilities are reported to live (Fabila de Zaldo, 1999, p. 2).

Fabila de Zaldo (1999) explains; the seriousness of the problem, however, is even more critical than numbers alone reflect. The majority of these people live in deplorable conditions, struggling against physical, cultural, familial, or social obstacles that prevent them from full social integration. There are millions of children, young people, adults, and elderly people in the world who, with their families, live in marginal conditions and are excluded and deprived of their rights. This problem is not limited to poor countries. Social injustice and the violation of human rights of disabled people are found both in developing and in developed nations alike. All of the above lead us to analyze, reflect, dream, and decide to fight against these circumstances with a clear vision of what we want to accomplish for our children, brothers, friends, or students. After all, this is a human rights issue (Fabila de Zaldo, 1999, pp. 2-5). Fabila de Zaldo (1999) also explains that; Regardless of age, any person with disabilities affects his/her family. By the year 2000, more than 2.4 billion inhabitants of the world will be confronted with this problem unless we develop strategies to prevent some disabilities and minimize discriminatory conditions, abuses, social injustice, and the marginalization suffered by people with disabilities. Support systems must be created within societies to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities and their families. Finding global solutions to this problem must be viewed as a priority, as well as individual solutions in the different countries and even in different regions of the same country (Fabila de Zaldo, 1999, pp. 5-6).

Rebick (2005) explains; In the case of disabled people, there is a wide range of social problems associated with disadvantaged conditions. Disabled individuals are a vulnerable group that often suffers social injustice, marginality, and poverty and affects millions of people and their families. For this reason society must respond appropriately and assume responsibility for the material and the spiritual needs of individuals, their families, and their communities. Social development and justice that promotes a better quality of life for all can only be achieved within a frame of peace and security, respecting human rights and fundamental liberties within a realm of human interdependence that involves all members of society (Rebick, 2005, pp. 212-218).

Involving Individuals With Disabilities

According to a survey conducted by the National Organization on Disability (2004), individuals with disabilities felt 27% less satisfied with life than individuals without disabilities. Multiple factors affect our feelings toward life satisfaction such as family, community, school and work roles. When individuals do not feel satisfaction with life, their level of motivation to participate and contribute in these areas also decreases. General feelings of poor health may also be a consequence. Individuals with disabilities participate less often in leisure and recreation opportunities. Since individuals with disabilities are more likely to feel less satisfied with life, we need to explore how participation in leisure activities can benefit and contribute to feelings of satisfaction and overall wellness among this population. While multiple facets may affect satisfaction levels, leisure is a major contributor to feelings of health, wellness and high quality of life.

Leisure is a means through which improvements can be made in areas such as physical, psychological and social wellness. Shank, Coyle, Boyd and Kinney (1996) believe recreation, leisure and play improve quality of life as well as “improve and maintain physical and psychological health and well-being” (Shank, et al. p. 190).

As McCormick (2004) explains; many individuals with disabilities aren’t given freedom regarding their leisure or recreation activities. McCormick (2004) also states; many individuals without disabilities have developed a passion for a particular leisure activity; individuals with disabilities should have the same opportunity to form such feelings. McCormick (2004) explains; Project GAIN (Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks), a program through the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, is a community based program which utilizes golf to facilitate community inclusion (McCormick, 2004, p.1).

McCormick (2004) also states that; Individuals with disabilities often face increased constraints to participation in leisure and recreation. Attitudes, inaccessible environments and a limited understanding of possibilities prevent individuals with disabilities from benefiting from leisure and recreation. Health and physical functioning are the biggest barriers to leisure for individuals with disabilities (McCormick, 2004, pp. 1-5). Transportation, money and time are also identified as barriers. Architectural barriers are slowly receding with the assistance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted in 1990. The ADA provides individuals with disabilities civil rights protections and guarantees equal opportunity. Society, however, is slower to change. The stigma of having a disability, especially a disability others can see, still exists. Attitudes have been slowly changing by educating the public about disabilities.

West (1984) states; unfortunately, individuals with disabilities are less likely to be involved in community recreation programs when stigmatizing attitudes are present (West, 1984, p. 25). Identifying barriers or constraints to leisure is the first step to overcoming them.

According to Humphrey (2000); one of the most serious consequences of having a disability is that it tends to increase social isolation and reduce community participation. This is not because people with disabilities do not want to be more involved or to participate more. One problem is that many people with disabilities do not feel their participation is welcomed by community organizations (Humphrey, 2000, p. 2).

Humphrey (2000) explains; the results of a nationwide survey of Americans with and without disabilities conducted for the National Organization on Disability and made possible by a grant from Aetna U.S. Healthcare. The survey was conducted on the Internet with nationwide samples of 535 people with disabilities and 614 people without disabilities between March 22 and April 5. The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive using its nationwide panel of approximately 6.4 million adults who have agreed to be surveyed online. Both the samples of people with and without disabilities have been weighted to be representative of all Americans with and without disabilities. In so far, as there may be differences between the weighted data from this online survey and the total population, both online and offline, these should in no way affect the differences between the two samples of people with and without disabilities that were surveyed (Humphrey, 2000, pp. 2-4).

Humphrey (2000) shows; Major findings of the survey include: More people with disabilities (35%) than people without disabilities (21%) say they feel “not at all involved” in their communities. For people who are very or somewhat disabled (as opposed to those with slight or moderate disabilities), this number rises to 40%. People with disabilities are more than twice as likely as those without to say they are “not at all satisfied” with their level of community involvement (23% vs. 11%). People with disabilities (31%) are more likely than people without disabilities (21%) to say that they feel strongly that they are not a contributing member of their communities (Humphrey, 2000, pp. 4-6). Humphrey (2000) also states that; People with disabilities are more than twice as likely as people without disabilities to say that they feel isolated from other people (46% vs. 23%). People with disabilities are much more likely than people without disabilities to say they feel left out of things in their communities (48% vs. 32%). People with disabilities are more likely than people without disabilities to say that they are not regularly invited to give their opinions on community issues (65% vs. 54%), (Humphrey, 2000, pp. 4-6).

Humphrey (2000) explains; when people who want to be more involved in the community are asked why they are not as involved as they would like to be people with and without disabilities give very different answers. For Americans without disabilities the most important single reason, by far, is that they feel they do not have the time (76%). Only 34% of people with disabilities say this (Humphrey, 2000, p. 6). Humphrey (2000) states that; The main reasons given by people with disabilities for not being as involved in their communities as they would like to be are that they do not feel encouraged by community organizations to participate (54%), that they don’t have the income necessary to participate (53%), or that they are not aware of what activities exist (46%). People without disabilities are substantially less likely to give these answers. People with more severe disabilities are particularly likely to feel that community organizations have not encouraged or invited them (64%), (Humphrey, 2000, p. 7).

Hiring Individuals With Disabilities

Health & Disability Advocates (2009) inspired the logo, “Think Beyond the Label” – A National Ad Campaign Promoting the Hiring of People with Disabilities is spearheading a collaborative of 30 states, which on February 1st, launched on a national ad campaign promoting the hiring of people with disabilities. The $4 million campaign is currently appearing on television, in print, on the Web, and on billboards throughout 2010. The goal of the humorous, edgy campaign is to change attitudes about hiring people with disabilities, raising awareness of the need for diversity in the workplace, and countering stereotypes about people with disabilities. Created by the Chicago-based ad agency Wirestone, “Think Beyond the Label” emphasizes that all workplaces accommodate difference—from the “copy-incapable” office worker to the “pattern-deficient” dresser to the man with “volume control syndrome” (i.e., the loud-talking employee). The campaign acknowledges that workforce diversity is an asset to small, medium, and large companies (Heath & Disability Advocates, 2009, p.1), (

Dangers For Women With Disabilities

As Judy Rebick (2005) explains; The Disabled Women’s Network Canada (DAWN) was established in June 1985 when a group of feminists with disabilities met in Ottawa to discuss women’s issues. As the organization took shape, DAWN identified six key areas of concern to women with disabilities: mothering, self-image, empowerment, health, sexuality and violence. DAWN’s mission since the beginning has been to end the poverty, isolation and discrimination experienced by women with disabilities. In addition to the discrimination against them as women, which they share with their able-bodied sisters, women with disabilities face massive barriers to their full participation in society (Rebick, 2005, p. 209).

Rebick (2005) also states that; many of DAWN’s founding members were activists frustrated with the sexism of the disability rights movement. But DAWN’s goal of creating a bridge between women with disabilities and the women’s movement was not easily met. By demanding both physical access to women’s services and events and the right to be heard, women with disabilities forced the women’s movement to look at a whole new set of issues. For example, DAWN’s exposure of the widespread violence against women with disabilities added tremendous depth to the feminist analysis of sexual abuse and violence as an issue of power. But despite tremendous progress, the battle for access is ongoing. The women’s movement was less open to women with disabilities than to many other groups. The battle for access has not yet been won (Rebick, 2005, pp. 209-210).

According to Rebick (2005) the strength of the disabled women who formed DAWN Canada was formidable. They also presented an amazing example to the world, because they were the first disabled group to develop. Hearing that a disabled woman could not get into a shelter and had to go back into an environment where a man could hurt her even more or possibly kill her, or that a deaf woman couldn’t get access to a sign language interpreter at a rape crisis center and was turned away, these are the issues that DAWN was trying to correct. The group worked to get a real understanding of the abuse issue and a true acceptance that something must be done about it. They started to see the shelter movement say, the new shelter must be accessible; we must be able to make sure that disabled women can get in here. And the police started calling the group and asking them to come down and teach a course about women and disabilities. As Rebick (2005) quotes “I had one police officer who was almost crying, saying,” “You can’t be telling me that a guy would rape a woman with a disability.” And I said, “Men have raped women with severe cerebral palsy, and these women are in diapers, cannot speak, cannot move.” “They are raped several times by the same man, because he knows no one is going to do a thing” (Rebick, 2005, pp. 214-215).