Michael Warner notes that here in the U.S. “[being] normal probably outranks all other social aspirations” in the Disability Studies Reader. I know I often want to fit in with my communities and participate.
But does this desire to participate also force conformity and exclusion? Through seeking “normalcy” does U.S. culture also diminish and stigmatize those who do not fit the traditional ideas of “being normal?”
It probably doesn’t take you too long to think of how true this sentiment is, that our “culture of normalcy” demands people to meet many unrealistic expectations. In addition, those who have this view also believe everyone wants to meet the norm and if they don’t meet it, must be “suffering” or have a “difficult life.”
This directly connects to ableism, which is the idea that what a person can achieve or their ability to live a fulfilling life is determined by their disability. Thus anyone who is disabled lives “less of a life” than those who are nondisabled.
In particular this “culture of normalcy” perpetuates the oppression of disabled communities by “othering” people and viewing them as individuals outside the norm.
Changing our language (e.g. saying “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled”) means little if we resist changing our actions, institutions, and broader culture.
I’m going to look at what some incredible activists point out as the core attributes of this “culture of normalcy” and what we can do to promote a new narrative of disability that seeks justice and inclusion of difference instead of trying to force assimilation/conformity.
Ok, so I still don’t quite get what “Normalcy” is…
Well below I’ve got a list of the core attributes of our “culture of normalcy” and how it contributes to negative actions and injustice. So let’s go ahead and get started!
The “Culture of Normalcy…”
Creates the illusion that a “normal” way of living/acting/being actually exists
What’s considered “normal” today is completely different from the norm 100 years ago and even just 10-20 years ago. It will also continue to change.
Lennard Davis notes that “[normal] is a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment. It is part of a notion of progress, of industrialization, and of ideological consolidation [of power].” This means, our definitions of normal support those in power and the dominant worldview, rather than being based in any intrinsic attributes.
Human difference is so vast that it’s impossible to say there’s only one way to live/act/be in this complicated world. This is one reason we have so many attitudes of ableism (i.e. oppression towards those with disabilities), heteronormativism, and sizeism (i.e. oppression towards those of certain body sizes).
For example, many in the Deaf community view themselves as part of a linguistic minority rather than having a “disability.” These communities note that they don’t feel “cut off” from the rest of the world, but rather just speak a different language.
We must NOT deem any life “abnormal” just because they have a different way of learning, communicating, or moving.
Forces compulsion to be “like everyone else”
If an individual or group is different in some way, then I see so many examples of people wanting to “help” them “fit in.” Why can’t they just fit in by being who they are?
One common sign of this is for school photos that involve students in wheelchairs. Parents or staff will often setup photos so that they hide the wheelchair and, thus, makes the kid seem “normal.”
It seems to me that this is clearly about making everyone else more comfortable, not to make the student feel more included.
If our society didn’t have such a fear of difference, then it wouldn’t matter whether someone used a wheelchair, communicated differently, etc. or not.
To continue the example in the last section about Deaf communities, U.S. society has often forced the Deaf to not learn sign language and communicate “normally” (e.g. which has some similarities to how the U.S. forced Native Americans to speak English and not speak their tribe’s language).
So whether it’s with the “helpful” mindset or through force, the “culture of normalcy” makes some think they have a duty/responsibility to make every “fit in” even if they just included them as they are, then they wouldn’t need to do anything else.
Puts emphasis on people to “overcome a disability” rather than seeking societal changes
How many stories do you hear about people with disabilities who “overcome their disability” and are considered heroes? What does that mean?
Does it mean they are a “hero” because they are now “like everyone else?”
The phrase “overcoming a disability,” Simi Linton notes in Reassigning Meaning, puts a huge emphasis on the disabled to work harder rather than focusing on what our society needs to do to change.
This also steers those with disabilities to internalize oppression by thinking they must “do more” to “overcome their disability,” even if that shouldn’t be the message we send.
I’ll look more in-depth at some of the societal changes we need to push for, but for now just remember how the phrase “overcoming a disability” makes people feel OK about accepting the status quo. Instead, we still have a long way to go before reaching a truly inclusive society.
Makes people believe that everyone wants to be “Normal,” because their life must be full of suffering
Marsha Saxton in The Disability Studies Reader writes “the stereotyped notions of the ‘tragedy’ and ‘suffering’ of ‘the disabled’ result from the isolation of disabled people in society.”
Marsha Saxton goes on to write that impairments (e.g. mental or physical) are an inconvenience, however “It is discriminatory attitudes and thoughtless behaviors, and the ensuing ostracism and lack of accommodation, that makes life difficult.”
These statements highlight that most people with disabilities suffer most because of oppression, discrimination, and lack of opportunities. Even those with […]
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