A Disabling Environment

Curator's Note

Where disability was once a convenient exit strategy for characters in soap opera, there are now permanent cast members and characters with disability (eg Glee, Friday Night Lights), but has the way we think about disability changed? This clip encourages us to think about disability as something society makes, a concept the media often fails to grasp.

Society as a reflex, ‘disables’ people who have impairments. This ‘disablism’ is illustrated and interrogated by Victor Finkelstein’s famous thought experiment of a world structured around the assumption that all of its inhabitants use a wheelchair. Power imbalances emerge when ‘able-bodied’ visitors to the world are disabled by low ceilings and the attitudes of the wheelchair users. When the visitors begin injuring their heads they are pathologized and prevented from participating in social life.

The UK based Disability Rights Commission Talk! series of YouTube films continue Finkletsein’s thought experiment by establishing a world where people with disability lead full and active lives while the able bodied are pitied and inaccessible environments prevent them from fully engaging in social life. The able bodied main character Robert finds himself in an alternate reality where his body is marginalised and patronised similar to the ways people with disability are socially disabled in the real world. 

While barriers against people with disability will not be exactly the same for each person, they are usually either environmental (inaccessible buildings, services, languages), attitudinal (prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination), or organisational (inflexible practices, procedures, people). In the clip Robert experiences barriers related to the physical environment, prejudicial attitudes and inflexible organisational procedures. The absence of non-wheelchair taxis means that Robert is stuck in the rain and late for his job interview. When he finally arrives he can not possibly be successful due to both attitudinal and organisational barriers. His inability to communicate in Braille or sign language is clearly more about the communication practices of the fictional world than any deficit on his part.

Both Finklestein’s thought experiment and the Talk! films show that it is possible to re-imagine and re-design society so barriers and systems of exclusion are removed. Like inaccessible buildings, disabling media images, characters and narratives can encourage negative attitudes towards disability. The shift in emphasis from the person to the social, physical and material environment opens up new possibilities for media representation.


This reminds me of a good article I read about making sports stadiums accessible and the problems faced by those in the "wheelchair section." Similar to the famous knapsack of white privilege, the knapsack of able-bodied privilege is very full indeed.

One of these days I plan to teach a class on "the trouble with normal" (title shamelessly stolen from Michael Warner) and plan to use these clips. The question will then be, once we have begun to make the norms of able-bodiedness and their  disabling impact on the lived environment visible, how do we begin to help students challenge the "normalcy" of those norms--their usefulness, inevitability, even seemingly irreducible "practicality"?  In other words, I anticipate a lot of "Yes, buts" to the larger project of rethinking these disabling norms.

Thanks for a great post. 

The part of this video that most draws my attention is the first half where the company debates the relative value of following the dictates of the law.  Bill's comment about "yes, but" seems to align with this sort of "what's in it for us" type of thinking.  

I agree that opening eyes to the fact that "norms" are merely reflections of majority rule at the expense of many is essential.  But what answers do we have when businesses measure the call to be accessible against the bottom line?  

I worry that as this video attests, the particular challenges facing the disabled may only become truly understandable when one encounters such challenges on a personal level.  Will a reminder that what is "normal" is merely a construction inspire or threaten?

Thanks to Katie for introducing this week and its tough questions in such a thoughtful manner.

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