Society, and the logic of social living, asks its members to cooperate through the life tasks (work, love, friendship). Success with the life tasks involves using one’s abilities in a useful and creative manner to support the well-being of community. When a person courageously uses his or her abilities and develops these with a sense of social interest, he or she becomes useful to society, and so acquires power – influence. This is the power of perfecting what one has to offer – one’s abilities. But when people have dis-abilities this can become problematic.
Part of the difficulty is how we tend to think about disabilities. Fine and Asch (1988) challenged five assumptions that influence attitudes toward disability: (1) that disability is located solely in biology, (2) that the problems of the disabled are due to disability-produced impairment, (3) that the disabled person is a “victim”, (4) that disability is central to the persons’ self-concept, self-definition, social comparisons, and reference groups, and (5) that having a disability is synonymous with needing help and social support. The son of a friend severely broke his leg and after six weeks in the hospital was in a wheel chair for a period of time. I saw father and son one day leaving school. I smiled at the father, Tom, and said, “Now you see the importance of wheel chair accessibility and handicapped parking spaces.” Tom replied, “I never got it before.” His son was not permanently disabled, and in fact at 9 years old today is an excellent football goalie. But to the extent that buildings and parking were not accessible, during that time he was disadvantaged. The physical condition did not make him disabled. The physical barriers that existed in the world reduced his abilities. If the barriers can be removed, a person’s dis-abilities may no longer be so significant. However, these barriers are not always physical; they are frequently social as well.
Adlerian psychology is a psychology of use and not possession; it is about what you do with the abilities that you have. But society may not always recognize the use, and societal structures may serve to increase feelings of inferiority among those who find that their disabilities block them from access to society. Consider the life tasks.
Work: are there abilities that compensate for the disabilities? Are the disabilities relevant to the work? I was asked recently whether a person who as Cerebral Palsy should be hired as a school psychologist. I asked about her training and experience. She had graduated from a training program, and had worked as a school psychologist before and evidently did well. But although she seemed quite capable, the school to which she had applied for a position was very concerned.
Love: are there traits that compensate for not representing the ideal in beauty or masculinity? My friend Jim was divorced and had decided it was time to start dating again. A widow I knew was also interested in a social life. But she was born with only one arm, and wore a prosthetic. I asked Jim if it would bother him to date someone with one arm. He said that it would.
Friendship: What would other people say if you were friends with that person? In college I knew a fellow student who today we would say had high functioining autism. He seemed very isolated, and I suggested to my girlfriend that perhaps I should try to make friends with him. She thought that was a terrible idea, because others would judge me for being friends with him. A family eating out with their severely disable son had to endure people changing tables to move away from them.
This leaves few options for those with disabilities. One is to form a community separate from the larger society, and some societies support this by providing programs and developing structures that guarantee the isolation of this community of dis-abled. The deaf community is a good example. Members have developed their own culture and language, and in many cases have developed a sense of superiority. The deafblind are not generally welcome in the deaf community, nor in many cases are people who have physical disabilities in addition to their deafness. The use of cochlear implants is frowned upon because it implies there is something wrong with being deaf. But within the deaf culture a member’s abilities are recognized and valued and the hearing impairment is irrelevant.
Special Olympics is an extremely popular way to provide some power to a disadvantaged group. But despite the enormous amount of volunteer work by those without disabilities, the program is one of only relative power. In the context of one’s own group there is the potential for achievement, but in the eyes of society it is in some respects still “pretend” olympics, and unfortunately perpetuates the separation and isolation of the disabled. “We give them their program.” There is no real power here. There is no Lance Armstrong – the disease has not been overcome.
Another option is to strive to compensate for one’s disabilities and become a success, and so powerful; striving for a personal superiority. Some societies like to parade the heartwarming stories of those who have succeeded in spite of every obstacle society may have laid in their way. Christopher Reeve was a very powerful individual, but he was powerful before his horse riding accident. There was a librarian I knew with CP who was evidently quite brilliant, at least according to the heart warming newspaper article I read about him. He still appeared to lead a life of isolation, but he was a success. Judy, in a wheel chair and with a hearing impairment has managed to succeed at work despite problems with a co-worker. “If it was up to her, I’d have been gone long ago. Fortunately, she and I are at the same level and she’s not a manager, so I don’t have to worry about that .After thirteen years, I really don’t care anymore. I’m still here, that’s the best revenge.” These people seem to have done it in spite of the barriers. Of course this leads to discouragement for those who have tried and failed, and more fail than succeed, and for the few who succeed it interferes with social interest (because group membership is contingent) and creates the fear of losing one’s position. As Green, Davis, Karshmer, Marsh, and Straight (2005) note, “The difficulty, of course, is that where the attitudes of others lead to discrimination, chances of attaining positions of power are limited thus encouraging further discrimination and status loss” (pp. 209-210).
According to Link and Phelan (2001), the lack of access to social, economic, and political power leads to the possibility of stigmatization, as seen in labeling, stereotyping, separating, reducing status, and discriminating.
Labeling assigns social salience to recognized differences. It is one thing to have difficulties relating and communicating with others; it is another thing to be autistic. Labels create their own realities, which is why this is countered in the US with person first language. I would not dare to refer to a “deafblind person” in the US; I would have to say “a person who is deafblind” to emphasize that they are a person first and foremost. In other parts of the world persons who are deafblind want to be referred to as “deafblind persons,” because it is part of the social definition they have created for themselves, much like the deaf community, which is never called a community of persons who are deaf.
Stereotyping is assigning negative attributes to the labeled differences, or placing social significance on differences. Would you date a one-armed woman? Would you be seen with a one-armed woman, or a college student with Aspergers? Would you eat at the table next to a woman with CP who was drooling? Is that one unfair?
Separation results in a sense of “otherness;” a sense of not belonging. When the reactions of others unmistakably communicate not only a lack of acceptance, but a rejection of whatever abilities one might be able to contribute, this is deeply discouraging. This is very hard for parents to see happening to their children. I spoke with the mother of a young girl with a genetic syndrome who was sitting on the floor slightly rocking. Although the girl was functioning very well, even on grade level at school, the mother worried about the rocking. “If we could only get her to stop the rocking she would be nearly normal.” This mother eventually gave her daughter plastic surgery to improve her facial features. “I want her to have a date for the prom.”
Status loss and then discrimination occurs when the ability to participate fully in the community is denied. I knew a woman with epilepsy who was prevented from attending school after fourth grade due to her condition. We now have laws to prevent this, but as we know, you can outlaw discrimination but you cannot outlaw prejudice and stigmatization.
Besides living in one’s own group where some power may be available, or striving for personal superiority by compensating for one’s disabilities, a third option is to courageously advocate for recognition of those abilities that can still serve society and make a contribution, if society will remove some of the roadblocks that are in the way. But advocacy takes a great deal of courage. The strongest advocates tend to be the parents, although not all parents have the courage to do this, and even those who do can be worn down. Let me mention two strong advocates, both fathers. I spent a day with the father of a young adult girl with a genetic syndrome on a train and bus trip from Brisbane to Surfer’s Paradise. Ken has been a mover and a shaker for persons with his daughter’s syndrome in Australia. It was a difficult trip. On the train his daughter dropped the stuffed animal she was carrying. When I tried to pick it up for her, she briefly attacked and scratched me. At a mall she had to go to the bathroom. She was capable of going by herself, but she was gone a long time. Eventually Ken had to go into the women’s room to fetch her out. Of course we endured many stares as we journeyed. I asked Ken the next day as he was sitting and starring into space if it was hard. All he could do was nod and work to keep the tears from welling up. Another father was sitting with his son who was engaged in self-stimulation. Like Ken, this father has been a strong advocate for disability rights and inclusion. The father, with an affectionate smile on his face said, “Son, you are acting retarded.” His son, who is profoundly deaf, continued the self-stimulation. The father continued to smile, but a bit wistfully. Advocacy means both living with the child and facing the community’s barriers and attitudes. Both can be exhausting and discouraging.
Adlerians should be advocates for the courageous who seek to belong in spite of dis-abilities through the recognition of the abilities that are there. Adlerians should think about the kinds of statements that discourage those with disabilities:
The counselor who tells the parents that they have to grieve over the child they did not have before they can love their disabled child.
The physician who works on the child’s hands and legs as if the limbs were not attached to a whole person.
The falsely encouraging parents who assure their children that they can grow up to be anything they want to be, even when the children want to be ballerinas or football players in spite of their wheelchairs.
The colleges that tell persons with disabilities that they cannot be accepted because they would not be able to cut it with the rest of the able-bodied students.
The mother who does not want her son to marry a disabled woman or the father who does not want the man with a disability to marry his daughter.
The therapist who tells clients that they are in denial of their disabilities.
It is not about the disability – it is about the person and their courage to contribute. Adlerians should use their holistic perspective to see beyond the disability and see the abilities.
Adlerians should help society to focus on the “use” of all people, instead of what they possess. When interviewing parents of children with disabilities I administered an inventory popularly used to measure stress in these parents. One of the questions was “Do you do as much now as a family as you did before your child with disabilities was born?” One mother very quickly responded “No,” which according to the authors of the instrument would indicate greater amounts of stress. But then she continued, “We now do more.” I once asked a group of fathers how they had been changed by having a child with severe disabilities. One raised his hand immediately and replied, “Before he was born I had two other sons with whom I spent no time at all. I was either working or drinking. After this child was born I recognized that I could no longer continue like that, and I gave up drinking and I changed jobs so that now I can spend time with all three of my boys.” That is power.
Fine, M., & Asch, A. (1988). Disability beyond stigma: Social interaction, discrimination, and activism. Journal of Social Issues, 44, 3-21.
Green S., Davis, C., Karshmer, E., Marsh P., & Straight, B. (2005). Living stigma: The impact of labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination in the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families. Sociological Inquiry, 75, 197-215.
Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 363-385.