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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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The Old Social Movement Demand: An Extension of the Frame of Civil Rights

The most basic demand made by people with impairments is that the frame of civil rights be extended to them. In the process of frame extension, a frame originally applied to one group or several groups is extended to a new group, in what is essentially a process of cultural recategorization. Through this recategorization, it becomes legitimate for the new group to be making demands that had previously been seen as being inappropriate for them to make. Frame extension does not guarantee that the group’s demands will be met, but it does suggest that the demands have some justification. Unjustified demands will never be met; justified demands might be. A successful frame extension is not a one-step process, but, rather, involves several stages: frame stripping, frame modification, and reframing.

Frame stripping involves justifying the inaccuracy or inappropriateness of the old frame through which an issue or group was viewed, so that it can be removed. After it is stripped off, a vacuum is created into which a new frame can be inserted. It is not a given that the new frame will be an extension of the desired frame, but this can be one outcome. Frame stripping may be done by the social movement, through protests as well as other means. It may also be aided by conscience constituents, especially in academic or media publications, who attempt to show why the old frame in outdated or perhaps empirically incorrect.3

Often the process involves frame modification. If this happens, modifications to the frame are formulated (and reformulated) both within and outside of the social movement. By the end of this stage, the social movement must have achieved some degree of consensus about which modifications they are willing to accept and which they reject.

Reframing involves attempts by the social movement to apply the (possibly now modified) frame to their issue or group, which by this time has stripped off its old frame and is ripe for a new one. It also involves the social movement’s attempts to make sure that the desired frame rather than another is inserted into the vacuum left by the frame stripping process.

Demands for the extension of the frame of civil rights, and for the actual rights that accompany the frame, form the core of one set of cross-disability demands propounded by people with impairments. These demands say that people with impairments want a change “from good will to civil rights,” in the oft-quoted title of Scotch’s (1984) book. Adherents use phrases such as “new paradigm” or “paradigm shift” to discuss the ways they want disability to be viewed by the public and for policy purposes. They want disability to be viewed not as a medical condition but as a social condition, not as a condition that causes pity but also one that does not carry with it an automatic denial of basic civil rights. Below we examine the demands that people with impairments were (and sometimes still are) making about how this process should occur.


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