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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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Demands Related  to Psychiatric Impairments

Activists have made a number of demands for changes in treatments and other aspects of psychiatric care. One set of demands is related to promoting empowered, positive, non-psychiatric identities; the goal is “relabeling” and shedding “ex-deviant” labels (Emerick, 1991). This may be the impairment group for whom the frame-stripping part of the frame extension process is the most important. Because stigma attached to the label “ex-mental patient” (Goffman, 1963; Szasz, 1961), ex-patients seek to provide themselves with new, more positive and less deviant identities. As former patients explain:

the way society views us is all wrong. . . . They then disqualify us—throw us out with the trash. Mentals [sic] are shunned, ostracized, or treated with a lack of respect. We are discriminated against, just like other minorities.

Ever since I joined this [activist] group, they have got me to think differently about myself. I am no longer ashamed. It’s not my fault (Herman and Musolf, 1998: 446).

Psychiatric survivor Judi Chamberlin, an early activist, is quoted as saying “all laws and practices which induce discrimination towards individuals who have been labeled ‘mentally ill’ need to be changed, so that a psychiatric diagnosis has no more impact on a person’s citizenship rights and responsibilities than does a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease” (Pelka, 1997: 252).

The other category relating to psychiatric impairments relates is patients’ rights. The most radical of the groups use terms such as “compulsory psychiatry” and call themselves “the psychiatric survivor liberation movement.” These rights, they say, include an end to forced medication, which they call “chemical restraints” or “chemical straitjackets” (Pelka, 1997: 63), an end to forced (some groups would say, all) electroshock treatments, an end to forced psychosurgery (i.e., lobotomies), which they call “surgical mutilation,” and, overall, an end to the violation of civil rights that occurs in an involuntary commitment to mental hospitals. The demands related to ending forced medication have increased with the passage of laws in some states, such as “Kendra’s Law” in New York State, which permit the practice.14 Some groups demand an end to the use of all psychotropic medication, although others think that such medicines are overprescribed but sometimes still necessary. Many groups demand an end to what they see as being tortures, including solitary confinement and tying a person to a bed, which are done in the name of treatment. Activists want mental illnesses to be considered equivalent to physical illnesses for purposes of rights and health insurance, with the end result that American culture would destigmatize mental illness.

To some extent, the demands of activists in the psychiatric survivors movement do not seem to overlap with either the disability rights movement or the independent living movement. And it is true that, in some specifics, they do not. Disability rights activists are not always attuned to the specific issues that face psychiatric survivors. And this movement sees the specific demands made by the independent living movement as having little to offer to it, since the latter’s concerns are with issues of physical survival and assistance, not labeling or rights to refuse treatment.

But there are similarities. Stigmas apply to all people with visible disabilities and to those with invisible disabilities when or if those become known (Goffman, 1963). In addition, activists within the psychiatric survivors’ movement applaud the extension of the frame of civil rights to people with mental as well as physical impairments. Despite the lack of overlap in specific demands, there are survivor activists who see themselves as part of the disability rights movement, and disability activists who see the psychiatric survivors’ movement as part of the movement toward disability rights.


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