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A New Way of Thinking

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Disability Is Natural website:

Throughout history, a variety of strategies have been used to solve the "problem" of disability. In ancient times, Grecian and Roman laws mandated the abandonment or death of babies with disabilities, to fulfill society's quest of achieving "human perfection." During the early part of the Christian era, the presence of disability was often thought to be the result of the person being sinful. Religious leaders tried to cure individuals with disabilities through prayer or healing practices, as well as by "beating the devil" out of the "afflicted."

Fast forward to the first half of the twentieth century, when the solution to cure "deviancy" was found in the "special training" available only in institutions for the "feeble-minded." Hundreds of thousands of children and adults were abandoned in institutions, where segregation, isolation, abuse of all kinds, and death were commonplace.??

Under the conventional wisdom of the time, "feeble-mindedness" and other conditions were thought to be hereditary, so the ultimate cure was preventing people with disabilities from making more of "their own kind." Thousands of men and women with disabilities were involuntarily sterilized. This inhumane practice was upheld by the United States Supreme Court, with Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaiming, "Three generations of imbeciles is enough." Eugenics (creating a society of the "well-born") ruled the day.??

A few years later, Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in Germany adopted American eugenics methods. Yes: Hitler and his minions learned from "eugenics experts" in the United States of America.??

Before embarking on the extermination of "undesirables," the Nazis experimented to ensure their methods would work. They first practiced on people with disabilities before taking on the larger population of Jewish people and others who didn't represent Hitler's view of a desirable master race. Isolation, segregation, incarceration, sterilization, abuse, experimentation and murder were Hitler's "cure for deviancy."??

The Ancient Greeks and Romans wanted a society that represented "human perfection." In the 20th Century, American eugenics experts, on one side, and Hitler's Nazi Germany, on the other, used horrendous methods in their efforts to create a more perfect human race. In between, other societies have sought "improvements" by eliminating people who, for one reason or another, were seen as invaluable or unworthy.??


Today, we look back on history and shake our heads in sadness and disgust, recognizing that the conventional wisdom of the past was wrong-horribly, horribly wrong.??

It seems we've come a long way. In the United States today, people with disabilities are protected by laws that prohibit discrimination based on disability. In addition, the inhumane institutional practices of the past have been replaced by community-based programs, services and interventions. Mission statements of disability organizations and service provider agencies include references to inclusion, integration, the value of people with disabilities, and other "progressive" ideals.??


Prevailing erroneous beliefs prevent our full participation in all aspects of Canadian society--they hurt people's lives. Why are they still so ingrained?But perhaps we haven't come as far as we think. Today, society doesn't condone the murder or abandonment of "defective" babies at birth. Instead, we simply kill many before they're born, thanks to "advances" in prenatal and genetic medicine. (Is the "new science" of genetics just another version of eugenics?)??

Instead of incarcerating individuals with disabilities in large state-run institutions, we now utilize community-based services and programs. But these special services often result in life-long physical segregation and social isolation. Too many children with disabilities are effectively hidden behind the closed doors of segregated special education classrooms. Too many adults spend their days in congregate "working" environments or day programs, and their nights in congregate living quarters. Segregation, isolation and invisibility are still with us.??

We may have changed the locations where people with disabilities spend their time, but today's social policies still reflect the attitude that the "problem" of disability is within the person. Thus, a continuum of services exist: from treatments designed to "fix" or "help" those who (it's thought) may one day achieve some measure of an "able-bodied" standard, to programs which "protect" those who won't, and everything in between.??

If-in hindsight-we know the conventional wisdom of the past was wrong, shouldn't we thoughtfully ponder today's conventional wisdom? Or will we continue to accept the status quo (even when it appears to be progressive), and leave it to future generations to wonder, "In the early part of the 21st century, people talked about the importance of inclusion, but why did they continue to embrace special programs that isolated and segregated people who had been labelled with disabilities?"??

A New Direction??

Prevailing erroneous beliefs prevent our full participation in all aspects of Canadian society--they hurt people's lives. Why are they still so ingrained?Advocates in the field have traditionally agitated for more services and more funding. But we do not need more special programs that isolate and segregate people who have been labelled with disabilities. We need, instead, inclusion in schools, communities, employment, and in other typical environments. To move toward that direction requires us to recognize that disability is a "natural part of the human experience" (as stated in the U.S. Developmental Disabilities Act and other laws). In addition, we need to acknowledge that people with disabilities are fine, just the way they are!??

Instead of focusing on the "problems" or the label of a person, we need to open our eyes a little wider and recognize and celebrate the abilities, strengths, talents, interests, and dreams of those who have been labelled. Isn't that what we do for ourselves and others who have not been labelled? When was the last time you broadcast all your problems to the world? Don't you share your strengths instead???

Instead of trying to "fix" people with labels, we need to ensure they have the tools they need for success (such as assistive technology devices for movement, speech, and other needs) and accommodations (physical, social, or other types of support), to enhance their successful inclusion and participation in the typical, ordinary environments most Americans take for granted. Isn't this also what we do for ourselves? We use tools, such as computers and other devices; seek and acquire the supports we need; and do whatever it takes to fulfill our dreams. Why should the lives of individuals who have been labelled with disabilities be any different???

Instead of thinking people with disabilities are incompetent-unable to learn, succeed, make decisions, and more-we need to presume competence. When we expect a person to learn, expect her to succeed, and expect her to make decisions about her life, she will! She may need assistive technology, supports or accommodations to accomplish her goals, but so do we all.??

Instead of believing people with disabilities are doomed to live pitiful, needy lives, we need to ensure they have the same opportunities as others to live Real Lives! And what's the definition of a Real Life? It's simple: what would the person be doing if he didn't have a disability? With assistive technology, supports or accommodations, there's no reason why this can't happen.??

Instead of using special services, which isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities and their families from the mainstream of their communities, we can forgo these "entitlements" and find the help and assistance we need from the natural supports and generic services in our communities. This is not rocket science, and it's happening today. In the process, individuals with disabilities and their families are living Real Lives, included in their communities. (And those who provide special services can change the way they do business to ensure services are provided in natural, inclusive settings!)??

Today's laws and services may represent progress, and many benefits may have accrued from these legal and social policies. But the real solution to creating an inclusive society rests in the hearts and minds of each of us, and in the souls of our communities.??

A Gentle Revolution??

Prevailing erroneous beliefs prevent our full participation in all aspects of Canadian society--they hurt people's lives. Why are they still so ingrained?Nothing short of a paradigm shift in how we think about disability is necessary for change to occur. Disability, like ethnicity, religion, age, gender, and other characteristics, is a natural part of life. Some people are born with disabilities; others acquire them later in life. (And if we live long enough, many of us will acquire a disability through an accident, illness or the aging process.)??

A disability label is not the defining characteristic of a person, any more than one's age, religion, ethnicity or gender is the defining characteristic. We must never use a disability label to measure a person's value or predict a person's potential. And we must recognize that the presence of a disability is not an inherent barrier to a person's success.??

We do not need to change people with disabilities! We need to change ourselves and how we think about disability. When we think differently, we'll talk differently. When we think and talk differently, we'll act differently. When we act differently, we'll be creating change in ourselves and our communities. In the process, the lives of people with disabilities will be changed, as well.??

I am the proud parent of two wonderful young adults, one of whom has been given a disability label. I am also a wife, a daughter, a sister, a neighbour, a member of my community, a resident of Colorado, a friend of many people with and without disabilities, a reader, a seamstress, a traveller, a public speaker and trainer on disability issues, and much more! If I live long enough, I may become a person with a disability. And I want to live in a society in which all people are valued, included, and live the lives of their dreams. I hope you do, too.??

This is an exciting time, full of hope and promise! Each of us has an extraordinary opportunity to contribute to a gentle revolution that will enable adults and children with disabilities to move from clienthood to citizenship! Are you ready for the change? Ready to embrace new ways of thinking? Ready to make a difference? Ready to promote positive images of children and adults with disabilities? Then let's get started! Explore all the pages of this website, be open to new ideas, sit and think awhile, talk with others, and do whatever it takes to create positive, long-lasting change. We can do this!

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