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atuttle's picture

Using the same standard


I want to begin by thanking Kara Brown, who quoted me in her post. Following up on this idea further, I noticed the discussion last week seemed to reflect an inherent discrepancy between the ways we view mental, versus physical, disabilities. Specifically, it seemed that people had a (relatively) easier time identifying and categorizing physical states as “disabilities” than examples of mental illness. For example, while autism or bipolar depression cases were described as differences in thinking, the general consensus regarding physical differences which limit an individual’s abilities to fend for herself (e.g., paraplegism) were disabilities. Interestingly, the discussion about physically handicapped individuals was less couched in moral terms (i.e., “better than”, “worse than”, etc.) Rather, the class seemed to agree when I mentioned that there are inherent differences between physical and mental disabilities, and reasoned that physical states which hinder independence can be safely (i.e., without a moral connotation of inferiority or superiority assigned to the definition) deemed as “disabled.” To illustrate this point, when faced with a case of an individual in a vegetative state many of us would not hesitate to deem this individual as disabled, rather than “different” or “alternative.”

Why is the benchmark regarding “disability” easier to determine in a physical, versus mental hypothetical? Several students bring up the issue of evolutionary survival as a benchmark. Amelia, for example, believes that individuals “who are no longer able to take care of themselves” can be classified as disabled. As Jessica points out, however, humankind has recently bucked the trend (so to speak) from a traditional hunter-gatherer society and the problems associated with this type of lifestyle. As humans have continued to negate the effects of “natural” evolutionary forces, however, so too have we created a new set of challenges for survival in the modern world. As a social species, it makes sense that many of today’s competitive arenas (work, school, dance clubs, family reunions) place a significant amount of stress on an individual’s cognitive and social abilities. And as individual differences in a person’s physical state yield varying amounts of survival success throughout our evolutionary history, so too these new challenges reveal differences in an individual’s adaptive fitness to the new “super-social “ environment. Individuals are different from one another, both in physical and mental terms. Some of these differences facilitate an individual’s survival, whereas other differences create additional challenges. I agree with Felicia: The problem we need to address is the stigma that is attached with the term “disability.” Essentially, we should use the same standards when comparing mental and physical abnormalities, without attaching moral values to these definitions.


~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08


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