DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

Reflective Statement

Professor Sharon Dale Stone
Lakehead University

This short essay was written for a course entitled "Sociology of Disability." I teach this elective course to upper level undergraduates at a small, comprehensive university in Ontario. Most students are Sociology majors, but typically, there are also students in the class who are majoring in fields such as Psychology, Gerontology, Kinesiology, or Social Work. This was the case during the term that Kathryn Burris was one of 32 students in the class; Kathryn herself is majoring in Social Work. My goals in the course are to introduce students to the field of disability studies, with a focus on the social construction of disability, the varying experience of disability, and the impact of the medical and social models on perceptions of disability.

The essay was written in response to the following final take-home exam question:

Tell your own story of how this course has changed your perspective on disability. E.g., if you work/volunteer for an agency or organization that supports disabled people, what have you learned, how has your approach to your work changed? If disability figures prominently in your personal life, how has this course changed your perspective? Draw on relevant course material to explain your answer, and write critically. The point is, that most people are drawn to this course for a reason, or have some amount of previous interaction "directly" with disability and impairment. This question is geared towards those who really feel that practicality is very important, a real hands on kind of feel. So, get into it, what has changed in your life by reading, listening and talking about disability studies from a critical perspective.

To assess student responses, I examined the extent to which students could incorporate a variety of issues, class perspectives, and sources. Above all, students needed to show that they had seriously considered the significance of a disability studies perspective.

Kathryn's essay is a powerful reflection on how a young woman came to understand her own experiences with learning disability, and how she hopes to incorporate what she learned into her future practice as a social worker. She now has the tools to understand herself in new and more affirmative ways. In this particular class, Kathryn was not alone in having gained a new perspective on disability, and students generally engaged in a high level of critical discussion during class time. More than most, however, Kathryn frequently challenged the perspective I was offering in an attempt to gain clarity on the issues. Indeed, at one point Kathryn was concerned that she was challenging me too much, but I told her that I welcomed her challenges, as it was evidence that she was grappling with course material and learning to see things from new perspectives.

Reflection on "Sociology of Disability" Course

Kathryn Burris

I have found this course to be a breath of fresh air, and I could not have taken Sociology of Disability at a more fitting or providential time. The article readings, discussions, and movies aided me in viewing my own disability narrative from an objective and critical perspective, and also helped me to think differently about my role as a social worker within the helping profession.

I remember distinctly Sharon Dale Stone, my professor, discussing in the first class meeting that the recognition and fear of difference in children is a learned behavior; it is not an innate predisposition of humanity. This idea struck me quite powerfully because I then realized that I had become socialized to my own "otherness" or "difference" at about the age of five, as I can recall my parents talking to their friends in hushed whispers about my "so called" peculiarities, which until that point I assumed were normal. As you can imagine, this revelation was not celebratory in nature by any means. It was marked with fear and shame that would be concurrent themes throughout the next twenty years of my life. I have many other vivid memories of how I was subtly or overtly taught by my family, peers, the media and other sources to prize normalcy and shun difference. Such incidents include my sister asking me why I played with a girl who was obviously developmentally delayed (I was unaware until it was mentioned), being reprimanded by my parents for being curious about people with physical impairments, and not being educated about, or integrated with, the "special needs kids" at my elementary school.

Since taking this course I have become very passionate about educating my own children (when I have them) about the diversity and beauty of the human body and mind. In accordance with my Christian beliefs, I am going to teach my children that everyone is created in the image of God, and God created everyone differently on purpose. Similar to the "ideal human image," as discussed in Lennard J. Davis's article "Constructing Normalcy," I am going to teach my children that there is no such thing as "normal." I am also going to encourage my children to approach disabled people on the street, in a respectful and courteous manner, as they might approach anyone else.

In the opening paragraph of "Unless Otherwise Stated: Discourses of Labeling and Identity in Coming Out," John Swain and Colin Cameron quote Mairian Corker, who says: "For a person who is oppressed, one of the key tasks of identity formation then involves 'coming out' as different and integrating that sense of that difference into a healthy self concept" (68). This statement resonates with me deeply because it encapsulates my own experience with coming to terms with my own learning disability. Instead of coming out publicly, though, over the course of the last year, I have come out to myself about my own difference. For a long time, I felt ashamed of my difference because of my apparent inability to learn in the same manner as others. This course gave me the tools I needed to begin to see myself in a new way.

My coming-out-to-self process began the year I started university, as at the urging of my parents I underwent a psycho-educational assessment before leaving Vancouver. The results, which suggested that I process information differently from most people, were forwarded to me in Thunder Bay, but for various reasons, no follow up was done. The results were downright terrifying to me, to the extent that they drew attention to the fact that some of my cognitive abilities deviated significantly from "the norm." To cope, I flat-out denied the results for two years, but by the fall of third year I felt ready to try to come to terms and understand my weaknesses that were presented in the report. By using Google I self-diagnosed myself as having a non-verbal learning disability. I immediately started having panic attacks; the next six months were the most trying and difficult months of my life. Since taking this course, I now realize that the reason that I reacted this way was because I had internalized the hegemonic medical model ideal that "conformity" was something to be valued above all else, as discussed in Swain, French, and Cameron's chapter "Who's Model?" I always felt that if I worked hard enough I would one day achieve a magical state of "normalcy." The psycho-educational report confirmed my worst fears that I would only ever, at best, be passing as normal.

John Swain and Colin Cameron comment that "[c]oming out, then, for disabled people, is a process of redefinition of one's personal identity through rejecting the tyranny of the normate, positive recognition of impairment and embracing disability as a valid social category" (76). Since "coming out to myself" six months ago, I have been on a journey of redefining my personal narrative and disability identity from a positive viewpoint. I am already much more understanding of myself, and way less defensive because I don't feel that I have to constantly hide who I really am. Nick Watson's remark that "[o]ur sense of self is constantly evolving" (511) resonates with my own experience of coming to terms with my abilities. I acknowledge that I still have a long way to go until I am ready to disclose my learning disability publicly, but I believe it is something that I eventually must do; otherwise, I would be a culpable colluder in the perpetuation of a hegemonic view of disability. Publishing this paper is a (scary) first step towards my "going public." At the moment it feels like the right thing to do. Only time will tell whether it continues to feel right.

Before taking this course I was ignorant regarding the extent to which our society devalues and excludes people with disabilities, and this course has taught me about the structural oppression and discrimination facing people with disabilities today. I especially found Brendan Gleeson's article, "Can Technology Overcome the Disabled City," helpful in understanding how discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people became entrenched in our institutions and social structures. Gleeson argues that our discriminatory ableist practices and attitudes originated in our historical and geographical valuing of the average working male, stemming from the economic shift to a capitalist, competitive and stratified labor economy. Gleeson gives the example of the feudal period as a time when impaired individuals were valued and included in society, and this resonated with me because it provided evidence supporting the principle that disability is a socially constructed phenomenon and fluctuates depending upon current societal norms. This is exciting for me because knowing that we were once more inclusive in the past gives me hope for the future, and hope for a time when more disabled and non-disabled people will be partners working to re-conceptualize disabled people's role and value in society.

As a future social worker, I also learned about how not to behave and act towards people with disabilities. I found Sally French's first-hand account of growing up with a vision impairment to be a telling reminder of how health and welfare professionals are often implicated in perpetuating oppressive attitudes and beliefs by imposing their definitions of dependence and independence onto disabled people. I am now more convinced then ever of the importance of basing one's therapeutic practice on the firm principles and ideals reflected in empowerment theory and a strengths perspective. That is, social workers need to work towards empowering their clients so that they can make decisions for themselves, and social workers need to recognize and work with the strengths that their clients already have. I share the vision offered by Stephen Gilson and Ellen Netting in their article, "When People with Pre-existing Disabilities Age in Place: Implications for Social Work Practice," as they encourage social workers to politically engage in the disabled people's movement.

Finally, I am now more cognizant of the ways that the socio-emotional needs of many people living with disabilities are overlooked, as discussed in Sharon Dale Stone's book A Change of Plans: Women's Stories of Hemorrhagic Stroke. Many of the women interviewed in the book complained of consistent insensitivity and failure of health and welfare professionals to adequately deal with their socio-emotional needs and wants after a stroke. As a systemic issue facing disabled people, I now know it is my professional responsibility to advocate for and/or provide direct counseling services for disabled people to ensure that they are being validated and listened to.

In conclusion, this course has been very helpful in teaching me to critically examine my own disability narrative from a social model perspective of disability. Learning about the oppression facing disabled people has helped me have a greater understanding of the need to partner with the disability community to bring about social change. Finally, I learned to critically examine the helping profession, and my own professional practices when working with disabled people.

Bio

Kathryn Burris is a fourth year student of Social Work at Lakehead University. She is interested in pursuing a career in community development related to food security issues. She grew up in Vancouver, B.C. but now calls Northwestern Ontario home. She is an avid sports enthusiast and loves playing hockey, cycling, and rowing.

Works Cited

  • French, Sally. "Can You See the Rainbow? The Roots of Denial." Disabling Barriers-Enabling Environments. Eds. John Swain, Vic Finkelstein, Sally French, and Mike Oliver. London: Sage: 2004. 69-77.
  • Gilson, Stephen and Ellen F. Netting. "When People with Pre-existing Disabilities Age in Place." Health & Social Work 22.4 (November 1997): 290-298.
  • Gleeson, Brendan. "Can Technology Overcome the Disabled City?" Mind and Body Spaces: Geographies of Illness, Impairment and Disability. Eds. Ruth Butler and Hester Parr. London: Routledge, 1999. 98-118.
  • Davis, Lennard J. "Constructing Normalcy." The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 1997. 9-28.
  • Stone, Sharon Dale. A Change of Plans: Women's Stories of Hemorrhagic Stroke. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2007.
  • Swain, John, and Colin Cameron (1999). "Unless Otherwise Stated: Discourses of Labeling and Identity in Coming Out." Disability Discourse. Eds. Mairian Corker and Sally French. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999. 68-78.
  • Swain, John, Sally French, and Colin Cameron. Controversial Issues in a Disabling Society. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 2003.
  • Watson, Nick. "Well I Know this is Going to Sound Very Strange to You, But I Don't See Myself as a Disabled Person: Identity and Disability." Disability & Society 17.5 (2002): 509-527.
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