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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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Frame Stripping

If the frame of civil rights is to be extended to persons with impairments, there has to be recognition that they are worthy or capable of having civil rights. This meant that three extremely deep-seated ideas—the essence of the frame by which our society has understood disability—had to be removed. These ideas are (1) that disability was a medical problem, (2) that people with impairments were deviant and therefore stigmatized, and (3) that disability was an individual problem that would only be ameliorated by individual effort.

Disability as Sickness

The first aspect of the old frame that had to be eliminated was the medical model of impairment. In that model, persons with impairments are seen as having a medical problem; they therefore must assume the sick role (Parsons, 1951). This role defines sick people as passive, dependent, child-like but also exempt from ordinary social responsibilities. This view of people with impairments assumes that, because they are sick, they are incapable of performing their socially prescribed tasks. They are in need of help from doctors and other medical personnel who specialize in their particular type of pathology, and they are expected to cooperate with such personnel until they are cured. This model of disability has been the basis for federal laws that still provide monetary support for people with impairments because they were assumed to be unable to support themselves (Berkowitz, 1987).

Disability as Deviance

Disability is also been seen as being a deviant social role. Exemption from normal social roles meant that a person was both normatively and “morally” deviant and was, therefore, stigmatized. Although disability is not the same as criminality, Goffman (1963) suggested that the stigmas are comparable. Our culture does not accept stigmatized people on an equal basis; thus, stigma had to be removed before people with impairments could seek integration and equal opportunity, which are a central part of the frame of civil rights (Cook, 1991).

Disability as an Individual Problem

In order for the extension of the frame of civil rights to succeed, there had to be a change in the attribution of causality (Stone, 1989). Sickness and disability are seen in our society as individual problems, caused by individual traits or situations, and therefore amenable to improvement or solution only through individual rehabilitation and effort. For people with impairments, this involved cooperation with treatment personnel in areas such as vocational rehabilitation or physical rehabilitation. This was the basis for those laws about disability that mandated vocational rehabilitation and training (Hahn, 1985a, 1985b). In order to view disability as a civil rights problem and people with impairments as victims of discrimination, this view of causality had to change. Disability had to become viewed as being caused by society—and therefore amenable to solution at the societal level—instead of being caused by and solved by individual effort or the lack thereof (Hahn, 1988).

These three aspects of the cultural lens through which people with impairments have been viewed—disability as sickness, deviance, and individual problem—had to be removed before the civil rights frame could be applied to people with disabilities. Stigmatized people are not seen as having the right to demand civil rights or to claim discrimination. People with impairments have to be seen as people who wish for, and can live independent, fulfilling, and self-supporting lives. They have to become viewed as people who constitute a minority group that has suffered from a lack of civil rights in order for an extension of the frame of civil rights to be possible.


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