Day 3: Curing disability…medical field makes advances toward removing ‘mental illness’

A recent article found on CNN’s homepage unearthed a reoccurring topic for me as  I try to understand disability and its place in our society, specifically as it pertains to the celebration of diversity. The article, found in CNN’s medical blog, touts Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) as a possible treatment for what the article describes as mental illness. The article mentions effective treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and Parkinson’s disease, among others.

What continues to alarm me about these so-called medical advancements is the message they send concerning the medical field’s perception of folks who are disabled as broken vessels in need of repair. With headlines of treatment,  and the article describing disability as a “burden,” who are we kidding when we tell ourselves that disability is just another part of diversity, like a racial or gender diversity. We celebrate the diversity that disability provides while simultaneously scrambling to scrub it from our society like a foreign, sickening pathogen.

Stories like the one featured on CNN beckon me back to last summer, when stories came to lightinvolving the sterilization of the mentally ill, specifically in the state of North Carolina. Over a span of seven decades, many states passed laws that legalized the sterilization of individuals of the basis of socioeconomic status, race, gender, and disability. Indiana was the first state to legalize this practice back in 1907.

Elaine Riddick was one of over 7,500 individuals sterilized by the state of North Carolina between 1929 and 1974. She was deemed ‘feeble-minded’ after being raped by a neighbor and sterilized in the late 1960s.

While the identities of people of color, women, and the poor have seen progress toward acceptance in our society (much more work to be done there!), disability is still an identity that burdens those who possess it, as well as society at large. As a result, the perception is that it is an identity that would be at its best if it ceased to exist at all. The proof is in our society’s obsession with fixing individuals with disabilities to resemble individuals whose abilities are considered desirable or ideal. I’m not one for catch-phrases, but I am a firm believer in the idea of folks being differently-abled from one another, allowing all individuals to be viewed as laterally equipped with the capacity to succeed as effective human beings. Able and disabled certainly evoke notions of one individual being ideally-abled, and another individual being partially-abled. The language itself is damaging and reinforces prejudice.

Diversity and disability’s inability to coexist is best summed up Lennard Davis’ Chronicle article from 2011, found here. Davis masterfully summarizes the ideological chasm that separates disability from the diversity celebration. The CNN article highlights the medical community’s perception of individuals with disabilities perfectly. Until people in and outside of the medical community begin to be honest with themselves concerning their perception of disability, people in wheel chairs will still be perceived as deficient, OCD will still be a burden to be corrected, and mothers will quietly pray that their unborn children enter the world without any handicaps.


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