Credibility and Disability
I work in a community-based literacy program for adults. Many of the learners in our program have disabilities of one kind or another, as do some of the staff and tutors. As a staff person with an obvious physical disability, I had never really thought much about how I was perceived by others in our program. But one day someone said something that made me question the credibility I and other people with disabilities have as educators in our society.
A woman had come in to pick up a learner who was disabled. She looked around and asked me if there was a staff person present. Perhaps she assumed that because I was sitting in a wheelchair I must be a participant. I introduced myself as a program worker and the facilitator of the group. She didn't even attempt to hide her astonishment and went on to say, "Well isn't it nice that you have something to fill your time."
People make a lot of assumptions about disability. Certainly one assumption is that people with disabilities, regardless of the nature of their disability, are likely to be unable to read and write. This assumption is based on a certain reality, because people with disabilities have frequently been denied opportunities to learn and gain skills. Many programs are inaccessible, most schools are inaccessible, and attitudes still create barriers to learning for people with disabilities. If people assume that someone can not learn they won't bother to create opportunities for learning, with the result that learning doesn't happen.
Models of Disability
The woman's comment about my filling time stems from a whole collection of stereotypes and attitudes based on society's medical model of disability. In this model, the disabled person is cast in a sick role. As someone who is considered sick, she or he is exempt from all the regular responsibilities that people are normally required to accept, such as going to school or going to work. Sick people spend their time trying to get well and trying to find things to fill their time or distract them from pain and discomfort until they either die or recover.
The difficulty with casting a disabled person in this sick role is that they are not sick. They are living life under different circumstances from non-disabled peers, but they are not waiting to die or recover. It is absurd, then, to exempt them from the regular responsibilities that full participation in society demands.