KC Spotlight: Disability

Patrick Ramirez, Disability KC Representative

September 30, 2018

Disability KC: How we View Disability

October is finally here! For many of us, this means the weather is getting colder, the leaves are changing, and it’s time to get out the hot drinks and watch as many scary movies as possible. For me, October always means a whole month in celebration of my little brother, Zachary. You see, October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month in the United States, and my brother, who is now 18 years old, was born with Down syndrome.

A question I was often asked growing up was, “If you had the power to decide if Zachary was born with Down syndrome or not, what would you do?” There are a lot of problems within this question. First, when I was asked this question, I was around 10-12 years old. I have no clue what people were thinking in asking a child my age that question, but I would be lying if I did not say that, nine times out of ten, I said that I would want him to not have Down syndrome. The reason I said that was because, at the time, I was attending Zachary’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with my parents. An IEP is plan that makes sure a child with a disability in the K-12 system receives specialized goals, teaching, and services. However, in the meetings I went to, I always heard the teachers blame my brother for everything. It would go something like “well...since his Down syndrome, he cannot play with other kids”, when all he wanted to do was socialize and be around other people. Another example of how I was socialized to think that his Down syndrome was a problem was seeing how little effort was put into his education. Zachary’s goal set in his IEP was to learn his ABC’s within six months of the school year. He ended up learning his ABC’s within two months, and, instead of reassessing his goals and moving on to new material, his teachers continued to give him the same ABC worksheets for the remainder of his set IEP. This reinforced the idea that, because others saw Down syndrome as abnormal and saw Zachary as being incapable of his true potential, Down syndrome was a problem that needed fixing. This continued up until I was about 16 years old when I remember thinking that I wanted to find a cure for Down syndrome which lead me into my interest into the medical field through the end of high school and into my undergraduate career. I thought I was going to be the world’s best big brother, curing my brother from a “problem” he had been born with and had no control over. It wasn’t until I could relate to Zachary through disability that I realized how wrong I had been.

In my 3rd of year of my undergraduate career, I was diagnosed with depression by a counselor. This new identity of mine was hard to accept at first, and what made it even harder was the fact when I told people they looked at me and said, “Well you don’t look depressed. Just be happy!” After seeing others’ reactions to my diagnosis, I went to my counselor and asked, how do I fix depression? However, just like Down syndrome, depression does not just get “fixed” because I want it to. I started to realize through many conversations with counselors and professionals that being disabled is not something to be ashamed of. It is not something that needs to be cured. It took a few years of realizing how my depression has helped shaped my identity and experiences as an individual to start loving and naming that I have depression and that I am disabled.

In looking back, I was operating from an ableist mindset and under the medical model of disability. When operating from the medical model, we see that the person with the disability is the problem and needs to be fixed or cured from their disability. I also thought disability can only be seen and that there was no such thing as invisible disabilities.

When thinking about disability barriers, we often think of accessibility as ramps, parking spaces, and other physical accommodations. While these are all physical barriers that need to be broken down, not all disabilities are physical or visible. The greatest barriers individuals with varying disabilities face are attitudinal barriers, such as:

  • The Spread effect – people think that a person with a disability is totally impaired
  • Backlash – belief that disabled individuals are given an unfair advantage
  • Denial – Invisible disabilities are not “real” disabilities
  • Fear – many people fear that they will say or do the wrong thing and therefore avoid disabled people
  • Hero Worship – People see people with disabilities as heroes or inspiration for performing everyday tasks, but disabled people do not want to receive awards and praise for performing everyday tasks

When dismantling attitudinal barriers, we start loving one another for who we are and see that disability is a characteristic that is a part of the human condition. We need to move away from the medical model of disability and into the social model, and, in doing this, we will be able to see and acknowledge that the problems disabled people face is not their disability identity, but with the environmental, organizational, communication, and attitudinal barriers that systems, society, and people have created for disabled people. 

So why did I take this opportunity to share this story with you all? Well, when I think about why I joined the DKC, both mine and brothers identities are the reason why I am here. And while more education is being shared on the disability identity and experience, which can help fight society’s barriers to disability, there is still a lot of work to be done to fight our own deep rooted ableism and attitudinal barriers as practitioners. This process starts with checking our own biases through self-reflection and continued learning.

To learn more about disability in higher education, get involved with the Disability Knowledge Community! Check out the DKC at https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/kcs/disability

Patrick Ramirez

Disability Knowledge Community Representative

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