Hand-out 5A - Attitudes and Disability

Attitudes: Breaking out of the Vicious Circle
It is attitudes that disable. If able-bodied people did not react with horror, fear, anxiety, distaste, hostility or patronising behaviour towards disabled people, then there would not be a problem. Discrimination and prejudice create the sense of being disabled that leads to further discrimination and prejudice. How can this vicious circle be broken?

Disable people themselves emphasis that the process of attitude change starts with disabled people: their attitude towards themselves and their own disability. this perhaps sounds the wrong way around: surely it is able-bodied people who have to alter their attitudes first? But as with people suffering oppression of any kind, the truth is that the oppressor is not likely to change behaviour unless the oppressed person makes the first move. The harsh reality is that if disabled people themselves see themselves as victims, then they will be treated as victims; if they are sunk into self-pity, they will be perceived as pathetic; if they are hostile towards non-disabled people, they will be shunned; but if they refuse to see themselves as victims, if they claim their own dignity, see themselves as positive and able to contribute, they will be seen as positive and able to contribute. This is not at all the same as saying that disabled people should be quiet, stop complaining, and settle for some kind of half-life. Absolutely not. The issue for disabled people is ultimately one of self-esteem, of refusing to accept the role of victim. There are many different ways of expressing that dignity, but it lies at the heart of whatever choice disabled activists make, whether strongly militant or quietly persistent. In the words of Rachel Hurts of Disabled People's International: 'Social change initially comes from us, from disabled people. It has to.'

Samir Ghosh from Jemshedpur subscribes very strongly to the idea that disabled people will be treated according to their own attitudes towards themselves. in his opinion, much of the awkwardness displayed by able-bodied people is more the result of ignorance, fear and lack of familiarity than outright prejudice. Because disabled people in India tens either to be in institutions or confined at home or are beggars, able-bodied people have few opportunities to them or form strong relations with them. Samir therefore makes a point of putting people at their ease and has no hesitation in talking about his impairment if that helps the process. He feels that every person he meets is probably curious about how e manages with no arms, and is basically anxious to be able to relate to him normally.

Furthermore, says Samir, disabled people should not be deterred by one or two negative experiences:

I take the attitude that people are nice, people are good. But I think human beings tend to bank on their bad experiences, rather than their good experiences. We tend to judge the whole human race on just one or two bad experiences. For example I went once into an office to ask for an address, and they told me to get out because they thought I was a beggar. that used to disturb me, but it doesn't mean that I am not going to go any more to any other office to ask the way.

But it is very hard. Every time a disabled person goes out into the stre et, he or she has in a sense to start from scratch: the looks, the avoidance, the awkwardness, the prejudice are all there, every time. dealing with these things positively time after time gets very wearing. Disabled people are, after all, only human; they may be forgiven for getting impatient with other people for not recognising that simple fact.

The Dynamics of Prejudice
For many disabled people, rejection is catastrophic; it provokes despair and retreat, which in turn widen the gap and produce further rejection and stereotyping. They become literally disabled by social attitudes they meet every day of their lives. they end up with a profoundly damaged psyche that is also a feature of other oppressed people: children molested or beaten by their parents, women living in fear of violence, or whole peoples subjected to institutionalised discrimination down the generations.

How can human behaviour be changed? how can this most vicious of circles be broken? There are basically two views on this. One view insists that human nature is fundamentally flawed, and human beings must be prevented from transgressing through coercion and legislation; make it illegal to discriminate against disabled people, and prosecute when it happens. The other view contends that human beings can be influenced, enlightened, and persuaded, and that prejudices and fears can be altered only by the people who are the targets; change has to start by disabled people taking the initiative, by refusing to see themselves as victims, and by being outgoing in their relations with able-bodied people. The second view is often more dominant among disabled people.

The truth i think lies on both sides. people can be influenced, but legislation is vital. Laws need not be viewed as an instrument of oppression; they are an essential expression of the values of a civilised society. A society without laws is indeed lawless. That is why getting disability on to the statute book is a major objective of most disabled people's advocacy groups in the world today.

The validity of both views need to be recognised by the other. Certainly we need laws, but they will not have any effect if attitudes do not change; we can not ignore the need for influencing people through example and modifying our own attitudes. On the other hand, if our view of human nature is that it can be changed only through legislation, then that rules out the whole enterprise of development, not to mention education.

Let us stay with the view that people can be influenced. It is not an easy matter at all. On the one hand, changes in attitude must begin with the disabled person's own self esteem; unless that is positive, nothing can happen. it is very difficult to form a constructive relationship with someone who is bitter and hostile to the world, or lost in self-pity, or angry that they are still alive. On the other hand, self esteem can not be raised in isolation from the social environment: we are all, whether disabled or able-bodied, a mixture of many influences, hereditary, environmental, and social, and our own attitude towards ourselves is not usually, except in rare cases, something we as individuals have complete control over. If the social environment is oppressive and casts us in the role of victim, then inevitably that is the way we tend to see ourselves; it is very difficult to break out this strangle-hold.

The question then becomes: if the answer lies inside the disabled person, what are the mechanisms by which an inner source of strength can be discovered? How do you start building self esteem in an environment which constantly undermines it?

Both disabled and able-bodied people need to be sensitive to the dynamics of prejudice, and they must work togethe r to deal with them. there has to be acceptance of the disability by the disabled person, and a realisation that the process starts with a positive self image. Able-bodied people need to make an extra effort to understand the difficulty of this process and avoid pandering to self-pity or indulging in over-protection. Robust friendships are needed, not kid gloves.

I am convinced by the testimonies of many people that attitudes can be changed, even in the most unpromising circumstances and under the weight of apparently insuperable cultural discrimination. it is significant that most disabled activists insist that their work is primarily with disabled people, in enabling them to understand the causes of their oppression, to feel good about themselves, to walk tall. from that position change can start.

*Taken from: Coleridge P. (1992). Development, Liberation and Disability. Oxfam, UK and Ireland.


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