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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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Who actually portrays a person with an impairment in movies or television programs is an issue that has incensed the deaf community for many years. There have been several instances in which hearing actors or actresses have played deaf characters either in movies or on television shows. People with other types of impairments also have rarely been portrayed in movies or advertisements, and activists have demanded their presence and accurate portrayal.


Telethons are a type of portrayal that specifically concerns many activists. They represent one of the most despised aspects of disability history. In order to raise money, telethons emphasize many of the worst American cultural notions about people with impairments, portraying them as if they are incapable, pitiable, and in need of charity. Telethons are used to raise money to help people who are assumed to be unable to help themselves. All of the worst stereotypes are emphasized in an effort to pull at the heartstrings and purses of the general public. In the process, say the advocates, stereotypes about disability are reinforced, both for people with impairments and people without.

Disability Culture

Some activists within the disability community are demanding recognition of disability as a cultural aspect of a person and not just a physical aspect of a person. This culture, they say, has its own norms, values, symbols, jargon, and other components. Disability culture includes a group definition of people with impairments not as patients or welfare recipients but as an identifiable minority. (Longmore, 1995). There is a public vocabulary (persons with disabilities instead of the disabled, or deaf instead of hearing impaired). There is also a private vocabulary, which persons without impairments should not use or do not know about (e.g., supercrip, a term used in somewhat the same way the word nigger is used in the black community, or disabled person, which indicates pride in having a disability). Disability culture includes the rejection of some personality characteristics (passivity, dependence) in favor of others (assertiveness, control) as well as disability art and theater, which celebrate disability pride. There is even, some argue, (only partially tongue-in-cheek) disability food¾fast food from drive-through windows, because there are no accessibility issues with the restaurant.

Gill (1995) notes that the concept of disability culture serves to unify people with disabilities and to recruit new people into the community. From the point of view of disability culture, disability can be something to celebrate (Brown, 1995). It has become a rallying cry, but, more than that, it sets up terms for the debate that are different from the way disability was perceived by the public, as well as by adherents, prior to the creation of this phrase.10 The phrase highlights the demands to change the frame through which disability is perceived, from being a medical problem to being both nonmedical and not a problem.


The demands discussed so far relate to cross-disability issues. But groups of people with specific types of impairments have specific demands that relate to the particulars of their own experiences.

Demands Related to Deafness

In recent years, a social movement has arisen within the deaf community. The movement goes by various names including the bilingual-bicultural (or bi-bi) movement, the Deaf Pride movement, and the Deaf Power movement (Rose and Kiger, 1995). Jankowski (1997) calls it the Deaf movement. The convention adopted by those within the movement is to use the uppercase “D” in Deaf to indicate adherence to their demands; a lowercase “d” simply indicates audiological status. That is, people who are “deaf” have hearing losses in the range known by audiologists as severe or profound (i.e., not hard-of-hearing) but do not identify themselves as part of the Deaf community (White, 1998) and do not support the demands made by that community.

Some of the issues for people with hearing impairments overlap those of people demanding disability rights; this is especially true in the area of discrimination. However, the specific demands for accessibility and equal opportunity differ. Deaf people are not concerned with getting into a building but with being able to communicate with the people in the building once they are inside. Whether it is a hotel, a movie theater, a court, a doctor's office, or a job interview, the issue is communication. Deaf people are demanding the provision of interpreters in doctor’s offices, courts, and hospitals; captioning of movies and videos; flashing light alerting systems in hotels; TDD-accessible 911 emergency telephone systems; and other types of communications accessibility. For deaf people, communications accessibility is the core of civil rights.

Employment discrimination issues for people with hearing impairments also revolve around communications accessibility. In a workplace, the provision of a TDD (about a $250 expense) or an interpreter, or restructuring a job so that nonessential telephoning duties are moved to another position, are ways in which employers can accommodate deaf workers. Deaf people feel discriminated against, for example, if they are not hired because employers refuse to make such accommodations or if they cannot attend a required training course or miss important information presented at a staff meeting because no interpreter or other communication facilitator was used.

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