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Disability: The Clash Between Culture and Self

sel209's picture

McDermott and Varenne’s essay on cultural constructions of disability nicely supplements Tuesday’s discussion of how we define “norms” and the ways in which norms come to exist in any given society. The class’s thoughts seem to closely mirror McDermott and Varenne’s claim that disability is best viewed as a culturally constructed concept, and we too attempted to picture whether the concept of disability would exist at all if the socially constructed boxes that confine our thoughts, not to mention our world, were lifted.

            While I mostly agree with the authors’ claim that disabilities are only labeled as such because we live in a world where “different” usually equals deprived, I think their concept can be challenged by disabilities that are acquired over the lifespan rather than at birth. While it’s plausible to consider a world in which going deaf is no different than losing the ability to hear high-pitched frequencies, which actually happens at a certain age, it is highly optimistic to believe that an individual who lost her hearing would consider herself no more disadvantaged than before. A part of the world would inevitably be lost; birds would open their beaks but not sing, babies would open their mouths to say their first words but not speak, pianists would place their fingers on piano keys but no music would play. Even if everyone in the world spoke ASL and technology was created to experience sound through vibration or something of the like, she would likely feel a void, a frustration at having lost a piece of self, and I wonder if she would call herself disabled despite her enabling surroundings.

Although the idea of loss defining disability can extend beyond deafness into intelligence or mobility or anything else, the conditions that are perhaps most relevant in the context of this scenario are invisible disabilities, specifically of the medical sort. While researching some articles for a Psych class, I stumbled upon an article entitled, “Being less of a man or less of a woman: Perceptions of chronic pain patients’ gender identities.” The article’s abstract describes an experiment involving nurses’ and laypeople’s perceptions of gender with regard to patients with chronic back pain versus healthy individuals. While this study has multiple flaws from a Gen/Sex perspective, its results are hard to ignore: both the nurses and the laypeople perceived men with CLBP (chronic lower back pain) as being less masculine than the typical man, women with CLBP as being less feminine than the typical woman, and people with CLBP as more similar to each other in terms of gender than healthy men and women. This study was conducted purely from the perspective of an uninvolved outsider, and it undoubtedly speaks to the cultural conceptions that are in place about people with severely debilitating medical conditions. However, I’m less concerned with outside perceptions and more concerned with the self-concepts of the people with CLBP, or more generally, people with chronic medical conditions. These condition usually develop in adulthood; therefore, these individuals were pain-free, or at the very least, not in severe pain, for a significant period of their lives. In a world where lying in a hospital bed was acceptable and being in excruciating pain was normal, would one really not consider herself disabled, not only physically but sexually as well? Maybe not in a world where this was life from the start, but perhaps in a world where she knows what the grass on the other side looks like, and to her, it’s greener. After stripping away the cultural bars that confine us, what’s left is our own concept of ability, and that can be just as debilitating.


Bernardes, S.F., Lima, M.L. (2010). Being less of a man or less of a woman: Perceptions of chronic pain patients’ gender identities. European Journal of Pain, 14, 194-199.