In our society, presently, persons’ with disabilities as a whole are often stigmatized as broken or useless (Michalko, 2002). This is no different for women with disabilities, as strong cultural assumptions for this population have been formed. These assumptions are formed due to attitudes and beliefs, especially focusing on body image, religion and language (Charlton, 1998). In general, women in our society are already oppressed, for example women make less money in the workforce then do men (Katz, 1996).
Therefore, looking at what cultural assumptions, stereotypes and commonly held attitude exist about women with disabilities and demonstrating the role of social systems and institutions in supporting these beliefs will be the focus of this essay. One of the ways that disability has unique implications for this group is body image. Body image is emphasized in our society and certainly plays a role in how women with disabilities are perceived (Charlton, 1998).
People with disabilities are often set apart and identified by their bodies and there appearances, as disabilities are often physically noticeable (Charlton, 1998). In Western culture these physical difference are considered deformation, whereas in other cultures this is perceived differently, for example in Africa a facial scar is seen as a badge of honour (Devlieger, 1995). Therefore culture plays a role in the forming of attitudes and beliefs in regards to persons’ with disabilities.
Beauty, in our culture, is defined by how society produces and markets image. In commercials, for example, the bodies which are selling the products are beautiful ones (Charlton, 1998). The implications of the present image of a disabled body include it’s ugliness and abnormality, which leads to the powerful myth that persons’ with disabilities are asexual (Charlton, 1998). This myth is powerful because it reinforces the paternalism that consigns people with disabilities to a permanent status as children (Charlton, 1998).
As described in Charlton’s Chapter on culture and belief systems “Patrenalism lies at the center of the oppression of people with disabilities”, and begins with the notion of superiority. Charlton also states that “Disability itself is the embodiement of repulsive images of the body, certainly a body no one would want to have sex with”. It is very difficult for women with disabilities to fight this notion that has been formed, the notion that no one would want to marry them or have chidren with them in fear that they could not be sufficient wiv es due to their estrictions and that they may prduce disabled children (Reinikainen, 2008). Ideas of a disabled woman’s unsuitability for motherhood, for example, refer to the assumption that disability means helplessness and inability, but also to the necessity of physical normality as a requirement for motherhood (Reinikainen, 2008). This is also demonstrated in the medical field where women who are disabled have expressed that the doctors were angry with them for being pregnant (Reinikainen, 2008).
This notion is challenged in the readings of Michalko where it is demonstrated that person’ with disability can do everything non disables persons’ can do just in a different manner (Michalko, 2002). The Mass Media is one social institution which is heavily involved in supporting the continuous belief that disabled bodies are not as beautiful as non disabled bodies. In films and television the disabled characters are always depicted as self-pitying, mal-adjusted and ugly (Charlton, 1998).
In challenging this, a number of North American Activists and the DRM have begun their own critiques and analyses, and much important work has been done. However, until the mass media broadens the depiction of sexuality, family and personal lives this will continue to opress persons’ with disabilities (Charlton, 1998). Language also plays a role in the mass media, as the terms used to describe people with disabilties is debateable. Language, as described by Charlton, “informs attitudes and beliefs because it is medium of translation of expression and thought. When a word or an idea is express, an image is generated”.
Often, words used to decribe people and women with disabilities are negative, and the repitition of these words create negative images. The issues surrounding language are similar in most cultures and in most languages, for example many of shona and Ndebele words use disabilty as an idiom of culture (Devlieger, 1995). The most common words to describe disabilties include “crippled”, “handicapped”, “blind as a bat”, “deaf and dumb”, “retarded” and “invalid”, these terms continue to oppress and dehumanize women with disabilties as they create negative images (Charlton, 1998).
Another challenge of language is that women living with disabilities are encouraged to be silent and not to express the issues surrounding their disabilities (Reinikainen, 2008). Silence over one’s thoughts and feelings can be a way of fulfilling feminine responsibility of the welfare of others. For the disabled woman another way of fulfilling the feminine responsibility can also be the need to submit to the others’ ideas and to express unconditional compassion and forgiveness to the oppressors, abusers, or other sorts of wrong-doers (Reinikainen, 2008).
This type of oppression can be dated back to the 1800s when poorhouses were constructed but quickly became asylums, in which anyone who was deem “unsuitable“ to live among the rest of society, including disabled women, elderly, criminals and orphaned children, were placed in isolation away from the rest of the community (Katz, 1996). This type of oppression is being challenged in readings by Mosteller which demonstrate that with proper care and rehabilitation and without isolation women living with disabilities are able to reach their full potential, even if institutionalization is needed (Mosteller, 1998).
Also, progress has been made with the transitions of using proper terminology when describing or reffering to persons`with disabilties, as the DRM has targeted language as an important issue (Charlton, 1998). Religion is another institution which plays a significant role in negative attitudes and beliefs being formed regarding people with disabilities. Religion links the origin of disability to personal sin or bad karma, then disability is equated with something negative, even (Charlton, 1998).
Charlton states that “If one wants change, any kind of change, support cannot be found within the traditional religious institution of the church“. Most churches do not accomodate persons` with disabilities as they most often do not have ramps for those with mobility issues, and once within the church there exists no accomadations for disabled persons`. Many of those living with mental or physical disabilities have negative experiences within their churches, as they are viewed as needing to be “healed“.
This causes many people with disabilities to abandon their church or faith, therefore abandoning a major support system which could potentially be vital to their recovery or rehabilitation process (Stanford, 2007). Research has shown that women believe more strongly then do men in the role of faith in healing (Stanford, 2007). This may suggest that women in the church are also more likely to believe explanations of disorders such as a weak faith, personal sin, or demonic influence, and avoid empirically validated treatments. This limits their potential for rehabilitation and puts them at greater risk for uicide (Stanford, 2007). These religious beliefs do not vary much throughout different cultures, for example African culture promotes the ideology that disabilities are caused because of personal sin, for example it is believed that if the mother did something unacceptable while pregnant her baby would be born disabled. This empowers the notion that the women are at fault for the disabilities of their children, and the ideology that disability is a punishment for having done something wrong (Devlieger, 1995). In conclusion, their are many implications that exist for women living with disabilities.
The attitudes and beliefs surrounding disability are formed through social systems and social institutions including, body image, language and religion. Body image, today, implies that a beautiful body must be lean, muscular and fully functionning (Murphy, 1987). If a women`s body is not perfectly in tact, it is believed that they are asexual due to the attitude that no one would want to marry or have children with someone who is not “able bodied“ (Murphy, 1987). Religion enables the notion that if a person has a disability it must be because they have sinned or need to be punished for some sort of wrongdoing (Saxton, 1987).
Language allows oppression of women with disabilities, as such words including “crippled“ create negative images surrounding persons` with disabilities. It also promotes the ideology that people with disabilities have something to overcome rather than have something to live with, and even live happily with (Knoll, 2009). Saying that someone has acheived something despite their disability implies that the disability itself (rather than the physical barriers) usually stands in the way of achievement and happiness and thus denotes disability as a personal flaw (Knoll, 2009).
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