A Report from the Center on Human Policy
Handicapism is a theory and set of practices that promote unequal and unjust treatment of people because of apparent or assumed physical or mental disability. A concept similar to racism or sexism.
Handicapism assumes that people with disabilities are dependent regardless of whether they are or not and irrespective of their potential to live independent lives. The word handicapped originates from the practice of holding cap in hand, begging. That image is just part of the myth, prejudice, and stereotyping that handicapism promotes.
If you have a disability you're considered a poor soul, and you're presumed to be sad. One woman who smiles a lot reported to us that she's often told, "It's so good that you can still smile. Lord knows you don't have much to be happy for."
If a disabled person is considered not very capable, it is often said, "but he has a heart of gold."
And then there's the myth that the handicapped prefer to be with their own kind.
"They feel more secure where they don't have to compete with normal people."
Another handicapist myth is that quote, "they have special personalities, unique to their disabilities," unquote.
This report expresses handicapism in personal interaction, in society at large, even in the human service professions. It is everywhere, like huge boulders weighing down its victims.
Personal handicapism. The possibilities are endless. We have focused on a few common examples.
Here is an artist's version of a cocktail party where the everyday personal prejudices flow unnoticed and unchecked.
Stereotypes are emphasized, "She has such a good memory." "Blind people are like that."
"Did you hear the one about the moron who threw the clock out the window?" Handicapist humor flourishes.
And then there is the person who concentrates on the disability and can think of nothing else.
Or the person who regards any sign of productivity as extraordinary, incredible, not to be expected of a person with a disability.
One of the most painful forms of personal handicapism is the avoidance.
Or what we might call the cold shoulder,
Another is being spoken for and, at the same time, spoken about, as if you were not present, as if you were an object. Being called by your first name rather than Mr. or Mrs.
Also, anyone who has listened for handicapist put-downs is familiar with the practice of heaping exaggerated praise on people with disabilities, as if they were children.
Perhaps the most outrageous comment of all is one that used to be reserved for Jews and Blacks. Have you heard "Some of my best friends are handicapped”?
If you are labeled "handicapped," handicapism is your biggest burden. It is a no win situation. If you fulfill the stereotype, you are pegged as a poor, pathetic, sad person with a heart of gold; you are expected to have an unending need for pity and charity. If you succeed, even marginally, in breaking out of the stereotype, you are considered unusual, a rare case, amazing. You are never simply ordinary.
Unfortunately, handicapism is more than personal ignorance and prejudice. It is entrenched in the society, at every level, in every institution.
For example, even though we have the technology to make mass transportation accessible to people with disabilities, neither the courts nor federal legislation mandate access. One group of disabled activists pay as much as $14.00 per person for round trip taxi fares Just so they can meet and strategize on how to provoke changes in local and national transportation policy.*
The same access problems occur in air travel. Not only does National Airlines have sexist advertising, it had handicapist policies as well. National excluded one woman in a wheel chair from flying without an aide. One
Excluded person was Judy Heumann, a founder of Disabled in Action, a former Senate Staff person, and a Deputy Director of the Center for Independent Living. She challenged the policy and lost.
If in 1932, FDR had to rely on public transportation to go from his home in Hyde Park, N.Y. to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., he would have never arrived.**
Yet even the fact that a U.S. President was disabled
Has not changed the architectural landscape.
Most so-called normal buildings still limit access.
As do many "public" bathrooms. Narrow stalls and absent handrails exclude part of the public.
Phone booths and mail boxes set up too high for convenient use by people in wheel chairs. More access denied.
By the same token, if you don't read, and according to a recent University of Texas study, 23 million Americans are functionally illiterate, written signs offer little guidance.***
Only recently have signs that utilize symbols been introduced.
If you do read, you better have good eyesight and patience. Essential information is made complex and hard to decipher in all kinds of forms. More evidence that handicapism intensifies disabilities.
Even if you can translate the forms, you may still be discriminated against. For example, if you are disabled, insurance is hard, sometimes impossible, to get.
For that and other reasons, the disabled are last hired and first fired.
During the preparation of the slide show, the authors decided to follow one disabled unemployed worker to the unemployment office. According to recent statistics, 85% of disabled people have incomes less than $7,000 and 52% of those have incomes less than $2,000. Only 36% of disabled people are employed. Kathy Feisel is one of the 64% Jobless.
She got to the office, but found it inaccessible because of a long staircase to the 2nd floor. This despite the 1973 Vocational Rehabilitation Act, a federal law that mandates equal opportunities for people with disabilities to partake of programs that receive federal funds.
Kathy Feisel waited while the unemployment personnel arranged to serve her in the employment office next door.
When you're unemployed and uninsured, the cost of medical treatment can push you and your family into poverty.
Also, hospitalization opens up a new realm of handicapism captured in comments that we have heard. Quote, "I'm not sure we should operate She's too disabled to really ever be happy anyway. What kind of life could she have to look forward to? She'll never be more than a vegetable."
The same prejudices have led to wholesale exclusion of over 2,000,000 children, probably over half of them disabled, from America's public schools, according to a 1974 study by the Children's Defense Fund.
Compulsory education was apparently not meant for the 2,000,000.
And the same prejudice leads to custodial care in America's institutions.
On October 10, 1974, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller gave his explanation for why New York State mental health and mental retardation institutions were so dehumanizing. We quote:
"It is very difficult to get people to devote their lives to take care of a human being.
That is no more than a vegetable and to do it 24 hours a day right around the clock." Unquote. Attitudes like this make such dehumanizing non-service standard operating
Procedure of institutional life. It's a
Like most of us, Nelson Rockefeller probably
Learned a portion of his prejudice from the
Here's an example of how the media makes
People prejudiced. Mental disabilities
Equal violence. Quote:
"The jobless handyman...was described by his
Defense attorneys as an alcoholic and men-
Mother kills tot: The newspaper promotes
The idea that criminality and disability are
Related. Quote: "And informed sources re-
Port that the woman had a tenth grade educa-
tion, most of it in special classes." Unquote.
If you don't think handicapism pervades our
society, take a look at popular comic strips.
I.Q. becomes a put down, an indicator of
Disabilities become epithets.
Words like "idiot", "retard", and "dummy"
are as prejudice-laden as "nigger", "gook",
and "slant eyes".
And the disability labels are still widely
Mass media teaches other lessons, too. About ugliness for example. Not only are ugliness and beauty arbitrarily defined, they are cues for good and evil as well.
Ugliness equals violence and fear.
Witness monster man attacking woman.
A favorite theme of horror movies.
And Captain Hook, stirring up children's fears of disabilities in adults.
Ironically, the same society sells another opposite message, but every bit as stereotypical. The handicapped as objects of charity; as we will demonstrate, as objects of pity. Behind this picture of three children with disabilities—photographed to mark the start of a United Way Campaign,
And behind our dimes is pity.
However well intentioned, charity drives reveal-underlying pity. When we parade disabled children at special exhibition baseball games
Or on Telethons made popular by celebrities like Jerry Lewis, we play on the public's pity toward the disabled.
We have all participated in charity, but it is time for a change. As one parent told us, the pitch in many of these charity drives, is to characterize the child with a disability as an enormous financial burden, thus encouraging donations. Then, unfortunately, the services provided by charity are seen as a privilege. Our position is that basic services should be provided as a matter of right with public funds.
Charity drives often suggest that the goal is to eradicate disabilities. And yet what most disabled children need is not a miracle, but simply an end to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.
In fact, charity draws money by promoting images of helplessness.
Somehow, the portrayal of charity, as in this recent newspaper photo of retarded children sitting next to a bucket of donated pennies, seems little removed from begging of a few years past.
How little dignity such scenes communicate. Here a public service ad casts the disabled person in the role of eternal child, Just one more image often utilized in charity campaigns
In the drive for charity, any gimmick that works is tried...even the proverbial money tree. And usually charity drives focus on disabled children. They are considered more saleable than adults.
And so, the price of charity runs high.
Especially in human dignity. Circus imagery pervades charity campaigns.
The charity event becomes a kind of modern dayside show.
Not so different from the real thing of a few years past.
Professionalism has not always done better. In fact the same side show pattern prevails.
Consumers experience this directly. For example, when we visited the Pieper family we found the two children lead separate lives outside the home. And not by choice. Julie attends regular public school. Jeff goes to a segregated one for handicapped children only,
Betty Pieper, their mother, and a leading consumer activist, dislikes the separate lives they're forced to lead. "I have a deep distrust of segregated facilities and programs. I want to make our children highly visible and trust people for humane responses." *
Every morning Betty helps her son Jeff prepare for the long trip to school.
A special bus arrives at 7:00.
It takes l 3/4 hours to pick up a handful of
other disabled children and to then arrive at the segregated school.
When Betty Pieper complained to a state educational official that she would prefer her child go to a regular public school where he could interact with typical children, the official responded, "Mrs. Pieper, you must accept the fact that your son isn't going to play basketball."*
"What I can't accept is the fact that he can't even get through the front door."* There are no ramps in the public schools.
But the doors are open to accept students like Jeff at the private segregated facilities such as this one...
Since the state reimburses private segregated schools for each disabled child attending, the schools engage in what has been termed head hunting. They seek to keep their rolls filled. It's their lifeblood for continuing operation.
And so the sideshow continues. Integration, mainstreaming, and normalization are hindered by the private facilities' needs to maintain a full house and the society is widespread prejudice.
Yet since 1971, a series of right to education lawsuits and paralled federal legislation have begun to chip away at segregation practices. Some schools are now more actively integrating children with disabilities. Proof that handicapism can be overcome.
One such school, the Palmer School, offers a good example. It helps maintain optimism about the possibility of change.
Palmer School is trying to overcome handicap-ism.
By teaching children the rewards of serving each other.
When several teachers found that one boy was too weak to climb onto the school bus, they began a program of exercises for all of the children.
No one was separated out.
And when a ramp was needed, the school officials did not use that as an excuse for exclusion of children. They built the ramp.
And when typical children make fun of a child who has a disability, the teachers educate about feelings.
The Palmer School effort symbolizes a larger movement away from labeling and segregation,
and away from the charity approach which makes services a privilege, not a right.
Back to handicapism. This time in adult services at a vocational training center. This woman told us that she assembles veterinary needles each day. The staff takes them apart at night so that the trainees can reassemble then the next day. It's make-work.
These other women place bolts in the wood boards. The bolts are also disassembled by staff or trainees later. This scene demonstrates to us how handicapism not only presumes incompetence, it develops a myth of incompetence.
Just contrast those make-work scenes with this one where a man with a disability operates dangerous industrial machinery.
Or with this factory in which disabled people work.
Remember. It is society, which creates handicaps by denying people decent work, by stripping people of their dignity, by forcing people into dependence.
Adrienne Asch, a human rights worker who advocates for the employment rights of people with disabilities, told us of an industrial official who said he would have to have, quote "ten wheel chair people" unquote, before he could Justify making his corporation accessible, then he said, quote "Look, don't they have shops for these people?"
Adrienne sees her work as identifying and fighting this kind of prejudice,
because she knows the consequences of handi-capism. Adrienne is blind. She knows people who are no more disabled than she who have been defeated by it. People who were sent to segregated schools. People who were shunned into dead-end sheltered settings where make-work was the order of the day. People forced to survive by begging. Even people who were institutionalized.
The ultimate handicapism is institutionalization. It's the last kind of handicapism we'll discuss. Over 600,000 people with disabilities have been institutionalized. Often in dehumanizing and controlling conditions characterized by boredom.
Toxic medications that flow like water, and which led one news reporter to remark: "They drink Thorazine at Bellevue."
Lack of privacy. Note the absence of stalls, toilet seats, and toilet paper. A common institutional look.
In some institutions residents receive ground up food. It makes feeding time a faster more efficient process—and institutional life more dehumanizing.
This woman, replete with bib, seen eating ground up food, symbolizes the effects of institutional handicapism.
That scene is a sharp contrast from the kind of behavior appearance that society values.
In conclusion, we have shown how handicapism occurs at different levels in our lives.
We've seen a whole series of assumptions that underlie handicapism like the notion that the handicapped are better off with their own kind.
And we've seen personal prejudices.
Needless emphasizing of disability.
We've shown how handicapism is popularized in the media.
And in commercial films.
We've seen societal prejudice in the form of
And forced unemployment.
We've seen the consequences of unemployment too.
We've seen charity drives that promote dependence and stereotyping, led by celebrities. It should be noted that in the interest of humanness and normalization, the National Association for Retarded Citizens recently ended the practice of selecting poster children. This is a step toward abolishing handicapism.
Finally, we have shown the ultimate handicapism, the dehumanization of institutional life.
And so we have developed a 10-point plan for local and national assault on handicapism. Even if you can work on only one or two of the points, handicapism will begin to crumble.
Learn to identify and correct handicapist statements in yourself and others.
Identify handicapism in the media and mount boycott campaigns if necessary to eliminate it.
Demand equal access for all people, regardless of disability, to all services and facilities.
Start a national publicity to fight handicapism.
Hold professionals accountable for the elimination of handicapism in their own practice.
Support a moratorium on the construction and funding of segregated facilities and programs.
Agencies should be funded only if they operate non-handicapist programs.
Support and develop national, state, and local groups with enforcement power to monitor the abolition of handicapism in human services.
Demand that human services be considered a right not a privilege.
Support the formation of an international committee on handicapism to investigate and develop action for the abolition of handicap-ism throughout the world.
For more information contact:
Human Policy Press, P.O. Box 127 University
Station, Syracuse, New York 13210.
**Paraphrased from the National Center on Law and the Handicapped publications Amicus
***Data provided by Lauback Literacy