Culture is a powerful force, there is very little doubt about that. It is often intangible and peripheral, everything in one’s environment exudes a broad spectrum of what a society of people values and does not value. As Charlton explains in his book Nothing About Us, Without Us, the Western world shows its lack of value for disabled people not through laws of exclusion (i.e., Jim Crow Laws, etc…) but through aesthetic medicalization, paternalistic tendencies, and an almost total ambivalence in building design, education and human resource management.
The Western attitude toward disabled people—a term that has come to encompass a broad range of physical, psychiatric, behavioral and cognitive diseases, disorders and disturbances—is largely shaped by the hypersexualized, visual media. It is because of the Western obsession with the corporeal aesthetic and, if it can be said, mental aesthetic that individuals who possess corporeal, psychiatric, behavioral or cognitive deviations from what is considered to be “perfect,” “whole,” or “normal,” are subjugated to our culture’s bias toward standardization, medicalization, and stylized perfection.
Since the advent of early-Christian art—in which demons are portrayed as being crippled, or pocked with boils, welts, humps, bumps and other various aesthetic “abnormalities”—we, in the West, have feared and thought of disabled people as being afflicted or tortured by God, Nature or, not until more recent history, genetic material. This fear and long tradition of viewing disabled peoples as some how being afflicted has lead to a dogmatic paternalism equitable to the idea of “White man’s burden,” the vestiges of which are still harbored by some cultural and political elites. There are a lot of parallels between the struggle of First Peoples for cultural, legal and political legitimacy and the Disabled Peoples’ Movement (DPM).
In fact, the DPM cannot be detached from other significant Human Rights movements of the last 200 years. However, it has only been in the last 20 or 30 years that the DPM has seen its nearly two centuries of advocacy come to fruition with the passage of legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). So, is disabled individual the new “Noble Savage?”
In the Western tradition, the human body has been the crux where science, morality and the highly idealized and stylized image meet. The variations of theme of the body, has been used as often as a symbol as it has been as a means to separate “us” and “them.” During the era of U.S. chattel slavery and the middle passage, the variation on skin color was used as a means of segregating “those that were chattel” from “those that had the potential to own slaves.” Our culture (predominately United States) attaches morality to the body; drug addicts, for example, are often seen as lacking morals rather than being afflicted by a serious disease to be aggressively treated. Similar attitudes are adopted toward sexually promiscuous women, where as sexually promiscuous men are aggrandized.
To be a disabled person—again, used to encompass the broadest range of social, psychiatric, physical, behavioral and cognitive diseases, disturbances, and disorders—is to find yourself firmly in the grip of the moral, scientific, and hypersexualized idea found in the Western tradition as it relates to the variation on the theme of the body. Often times, the aesthetically gripping or what perception leads us to believe is unacceptable or displeasing is, from birth, medicalized and, thus, immediately “treated” with a scalpel.
Our institutions, those responsible for social cohesion and enforcement of cultural values, literally segregate those individual’s who don’t fit the mental aesthetic of the status quo through the continued use of, for example, forced institutionalization of the mentally ill and “special” classrooms for children who’ve experienced environmental and psychiatric trauma or suffer from acute medical or genetic/chromosomal conditions (i.e., ALS, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, fragile X, etc…).
As Susan Sontag, postmodern social critic and multimedia artist, points out in her book Illness as Metaphor, Western (again, predominately American) culture often utilizes sickness or medical anomalies to relay cultural values. Much like the traditional use of the shade black as a literary vehicle to convey negativity, sickness and medical anomalies can have powerful and culturally loaded connotations. The use of the word “cancer” or “AIDS,” as a literary device, is so powerful they are almost a taboo.
At the height of America’s tuberculosis epidemic, the bacterial infection of the lungs or sub-cutaneous tissues, was commonly and medically referred to as “consumption” because of its affects on the corporeal aesthetics—it literally “consumed” the afflicted individual from the inside out. “Consumption,” “AIDS,” and “cancer” have come to symbolize the finality of Earthly existence in a culture that places a premium on the perfection of the “meat-self” and that is uncomfortable with its degradation and the teleological outcome of all carbon based life.