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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

Sharon Barnartt and Richard Scotch

From Chapter Two: Collective Consciousness and a Profile of Issues

Social movements are motivated by demands for change, which are derived from a type of belief system we call a collective consciousness.1 These belief systems consist of ideas that transform perceptions and ultimately legitimate opposition to extant cultural beliefs or social structural arrangements (Mueller, 1987). This opposition to cultural beliefs is necessary in order to motivate people to seek change, because cultural beliefs naturally seek to conserve the social and political order. Some scholars have called a collective consciousness an “oppositional consciousness” because the problem identification, explanatory framework, and proposed solutions suggested by a collective consciousness will be in opposition to the cultural explanations with which those activists were raised (Groch, 1994). It is this oppositional consciousness that can cause people to engage in risky contentious political action.

A collective consciousness provides a lens through which a person’s existence can be newly viewed and thus reinterpreted (Katzenstein, 1997: 8). In the women’s movement, for example, “having your consciousness raised” meant becoming conscious of—and using—explanations that were group-based rather than explanations that focused on your own individual situation (Cassell, 1977: 16). Raising the consciousness of both women and men was the goal of one faction of the movement (Freeman, 1975).

The collective consciousness of a social movement suggests that personal problems result from unfair treatment rather than from a lack of personal effort or ability (Klein, 1987: 23) because, if it did not, there would be no reason for collective action to be taken to solve the problem. Therefore, collective consciousnesses are likely to suggest that, in the phrase used by the women’s movement, “the personal is political.” A collective consciousness identifies a problem, suggests a solution, invokes the necessity for collective action (Klein, 1987: 23), and impels its adherents to take that action. It provides the social movement with “justification, direction, weapons of attack, weapons of defense, inspiration, and hope” (Blumer, 1995: 73).

Collective consciousnesses also include delineation of group boundaries (Gould, 1993; Whittier, 1997). That is, they identify who is “with us” and who is “against us.” There were predictions that the development of a collective consciousness among people with impairments would be difficult, if not impossible. People with one type of impairment do not always identify or feel a commonality with people with other types of impairments. The problems faced by different impairment groups, and the solutions they seek, are sometimes not just different but completely contradictory. This makes the development of a shared consciousness problematic (Scotch, 1989). This is demonstrated by the fact that people with one type of impairment frequently stigmatize people with other types of impairments (Johnson, 1983). People with unseen disabilities are prejudiced against those with visible disabilities (Safilios-Rothschild, 1976: 45), people with physical impairments are prejudiced against those with mental impairments, and people without developmental impairments are prejudiced against people with such impairments (Ferguson, 1987).

Against these predictions, however, a collective consciousness did develop that was strong enough to impel contentious action. This chapter is concerned with that collective consciousness and its associated demands, which have motivated contentious actions taken by and for people with impairments since 1970. The chapter outlines two sets of demands. One set consists of demands that potentially apply to people with all types of impairments. Following Longmore (1997), Pelka (1997), Young (1998), and Zola (1987) we call these cross-disability demands. The second set of demands differ by impairment type; we call those impairment-specific demands.

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