The Bigger Picture

  • Talking to People with Disabilities
  • The Many Models of Disability
  • Visible and Invisible Disabilities
  • Mental Health

Talking to People with Disabilities

Joshua Frazier, Student, Fitchburg State University

Whenever you hear about the concept of disability, an important question that is often overlooked is, “Who is actually providing this information?” Many times the source is a medical professional. Other times it is an advocacy group. Sometimes it is volunteers, educators, even parents and guardians of children with disabilities. These are all good, reliable sources. They have experience in interacting with and treating those with disabilities, so they must be the best sources of information on disabilities, right? But now ask yourself another question, “How often do you hear what the people who actually have disabilities think?” I found myself asking this question during the development of another section of the disability exhibit. I was doing an interview with an alum from Fitchburg State University, Tara Cranston, and I had the thought that this might be the first time I had actually discussed disabilities with someone who had a disability. I could not think of a time during my research where I encountered a person with a disability giving their first-hand account of their experiences, but figuring that there must be some articles out there, I tried to do a Google search to see if I could find any such interviews. Surprisingly, I found very little, but, despite the relatively small pool of information, the opinions and thoughts that I did find were very interesting.

The first and most significant point I noticed was that many of the people with disabilities who wrote about their experiences felt that their disability was a part of them in the same way a person’s hair color or height is. Emily Ladau, while discussing euphemisms that are more offensive or derogatory than just using “disabled,” says that using these alternatives “demonstrates an assumption that ‘disabled’ is a negative quality or derogatory word, when in fact, disabled is what I am. It is, in my opinion, the plainest, simplest, most straightforward, and least offensive way to refer to what my body can and cannot do”(Ladau). Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, who wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, equated disability rights like “Crip Power” to Black Lives Matter and L.G.B.T.+ rights movements. These statements show much more beyond their acceptance of their disabilities. It goes beyond just accepting that they have disabilities, and they instead claim their disabilities as part of their identity. They are proud of their differences, and most of all, proud of their resourcefulness and dedication to overcoming obstacles. In Garland-Thompson’s case, this inclusion of her disability into her identity is “a claim to inclusion and right to access resources." It is her saying that she deserves her spot in the world and is an equal to anyone, with or without a disability.

Obviously, like any group of people, not every person with a disability would agree with these views. Everyone, including people with disabilities, is an individual, and each has their own set of ideas, morals, and identities. People with disabilities are also not defined by their disabilities and are well-rounded individuals with personalities beyond their physical or mental descriptions. However, the views of these two authors highlight the different outlooks between people without disabilities and people with disabilities. For many people who do not have any disabilities, the idea of being disabled is terrifying. They do not want to think about "struggling" with or "giving up" things they used to do and can’t imagine how someone could get used to having a disability. This is a mindset that is held by many who acquire a disability during their lives. At first many of them find it difficult, both physically and emotionally, to change the way they lived their lives, with some becoming depressed and angry (for example, see the artifacts related to Harry Doehla). However, in most cases, these people are able to adapt to their new situation and continue living their lives with accommodations. I think these opposing mindsets, and disability as a whole, highlight what defines the human spirit: our ability to get back up and keep going, no matter what life throws our way. 

Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. “Becoming Disabled.” The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/opinion/sunday/becoming-disabled.html.

Ladau, Emily. “4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust.” Center for Disability Rights, cdrnys.org/blog/disability-dialogue/the-disability-dialogue-4-disability-euphemisms-that-need-to-bite-the-dust/.

Alfred the Great and Crohn's Disease

The Many Models of Disability

Madison Sideleau, Student, Fitchburg State University

We have come up with multiple different “models” or frameworks for diagnosing, treating, and interacting with disability. As the years go on, more models have been introduced in order to keep up with our ever-changing understanding. Each model has its own way of explaining what a disability is. While there are a multitude of different models, there are two main models used. These include the medical model and the social model. Though each model does its job to frame this topic, since disabilities are such a complex issue, it is difficult for us to frame it with just one model.

The Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology defines the medical model as a model of health "suggests that disease is detected and identified through a systematic process of observation, description, and differentiation, in accordance with standard accepted procedures, such as medical examinations, tests, or a set of symptom descriptions. There are three major criticisms of the model that: (1) it supports the false notion of dualism in health, whereby biological and psychological problems are treated separately; (2) it focuses too heavily on disability and impairment rather than on an individual’s abilities and strengths; and (3) it encourages paternalism within medicine rather than patient empowerment" (Swaine). This model was developed in replacement of the moral or religious model. Contrary to this model that viewed disability as an act of God, typically as a punishment, the medical model was created as a way to explain disabilities in terms of physical problems such as disease, illness, trauma, etc. With the medical model, a disability is seen as a personal issue that should not be the concern of anyone but the person in which it affects. It is based on the belief that difficulties associated with a disability should be dealt with by the person with the disability only (“Models of Disability: Types and Definitions.”). Though the medical model helped to explain the physical manifestation of disability in medical terms, it has been met with some criticism.

One of the major criticisms the medical model is the fact that it suggests a person with a disability is potentially helpless, that the disability was a part of the person and they could not do anything about it unless there was a "cure." In terms of the medical model, a person with a disability might not be equal to those without them. Another major criticism of the medical model was that it defines disability in terms of an abled norm. Meaning those who lack a disability or are “abled” are seen as “normal” and those with a disability are the odd ones out. Of course, we know just how common disabilities actually are. In fact, one in four adults in the United States alone live with a disability (“CDC: 1 in 4 US Adults Live with a Disability”). Thus, stating that a disability is outside the norm would not be correct seeing as how many people live with a disability.

With all of this criticism against the medical model, a new set of frameworks were needed to look at disabilities. Thus, the social model was created. The social model of disability is a more contemporary model that puts more of an emphasis on how society perceives disability rather than the medical aspect. The social model states that a medical condition does not cause a disability, but rather disabiilty is defined by the attitudes and structures of society (“Social Model of Disability,” Mental Health Foundation). While the social model does not disregard the medical diagnosis of a disability, it focuses on the affect society has on our view of such conditions. It aims to accommodate those impairments by making our society more fit to deal with them. The major point raised by the social model is if society was made to be accessible to those with disabilities, they would not be excluded or restricted (“Social Model of Disability,” People with Disability Australia​). Like the medical model, the social model has been met with criticism as well. A critique of this model is the fact that it views disability in the eyes of society only and not on the impacts of the actual impairment on the person. This can lead to problems because the disability itself may not get the attention it needs in order to improve the condition of the person whom it affects.

While these models help us to understand different aspects of disability, there are certain conditions that would not be able to be defined under just one of the models alone. If you take blindness as an example, you could use both the medical and the social model to define it as a disability. Blindness can be defined as a disability under the medical model because it is a medical condition that impairs an individual by causing them to be unable to see. It could also be defined as a disability under the social model because our society is not fit to accommodate those who are unable to see efficiently. Thus, these individuals must adjust their daily lives to fit into our society (see, for instance, the story of Tim Vernon). Another example of a condition that may be difficult to define as a disability with just one of the models would be a disease such as Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract (“Crohn's Disease”). It is easy to see how this condition could fit under the medical model because it is a medical condition that impairs a person’s everyday functioning. It can also fit under the social model because in our society it is difficult for someone to live a “normal” life with a condition like this (see, for instance, the story of Alfred the Great).

Under these two models, it is difficult to see where mental illnesses and other mental conditions fit because both models seem to put most of their emphasis on physical disabilities. The medical model puts a lot of its focus on treating medical conditions in order for a person to become more “abled.” The social model puts its focus on adjusting society in order for a person to become more “abled.” When we are discussing the topic of mentality, it is not as simple. Most of the time, a mental condition is personal and cannot be fixed by adjustments like those. With all these criticisms and problems with the two models, it is difficult to determine which is best fit to use.

In premodern times when our medical knowledge and technological advancements were different than they are now, it would be easy for us to categorize a disability under one set of frameworks or model, but we can see how complex disabilities can actually be. Because the topic is so complex, it cannot be defined by just one set of frameworks. All models have been met with criticism, and as a society, we must evaluate these criticisms as well as our knowledge in order to gain a better understanding of how to approach disability.

“CDC: 1 in 4 US Adults Live with a Disability.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,16 Aug. 2018, www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0816-disability.html.

“Crohn's Disease.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 Sept. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/crohns-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-203 53304.

“Models of Disability: Types and Definitions.” Disabled World, 6 Dec. 2019, www.disabled-world.com/definitions/disability-models.php.

mjm33. “The Social and Medical Model of Disability.” University of Leicester, 13 Oct. 2015, www2.le.ac.uk/offices/accessability/staff/accessabilitytutors/information-for-access ability-tutors/the-social-and-medical-model-of-disability.

“Social Model of Disability.” Mental Health Foundation, 12 Apr. 2017, www.mentalhealth.org.uk/learning-disabilities/a-to-z/s/social-model-disability.

“Social Model of Disability.” People with Disability Australia​, pwd.org.au/resources/disability-info/social-model-of-disability/.

Swaine, Zoë. “Medical Model.” Springer, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-0-387-79948-3_2131.

Visible and Invisible Disabilities

Chase Carlson, Student, Fitchburg State University

Throughout history people have experienced many forms of disabilities. Some people experience physical disabilities which can be temporary like a broken limb or chronic like scoliosis. Others may experience mental health disabilities' this form of disability is not as well known as a physical disability because it can be harder to notice due to the sheer fact that it is invisible. Mental health disabilities can take many forms: they can be temporary like a stand-alone anxiety attack or more chronic like depression, but like a physical disability, it can affect a person in many aspect(s) of their life. But one question can be asked: in both the premodern and modern era of society, why do we mostly only acknowledge the disabilities that can be seen, usually physical, and why can’t we understand that people can have more than one disability, both physical and mental?

A very important factor is to understand disability both on a physical and mental level. A physical disability is something that affects a person's functioning. This can include a limitation to a person's mobility, dexterity, and even stamina. There are many physical disabilities that can affect someone's way of life; some of these include a physical trauma like an amputation or a medical condition like COPD that limits a person's ability to do daily tasks. Mental disability or illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, or mood. There are many different factors that can cause someone to have a mental health condition. Some of these include genetics, environmental and lifestyle influences, and traumatic events that occurred in someone's life. Some conditions include ADHD, anxiety and depression (“What Is Mental Health?”). Disability affects many people both mentaly and physically in society during the modern era, but the history of disability has spanned across human history.

In premodern times disability was perhaps looked at differently than it is now due to changes in society, social norms, and other outside factors. In today's modern society, there have been numerous changes in the way we look at disability. Today we have many resources that allow us to engage those with disabilities. There have been great improvements in modern medicine to help those with disabilities, like the advancements of prosthetic devices and other forms of therapy of physical and occupational therapy (“A Brief History of the Development & Evolution of Prosthetic Limbs”). There have also been developments for those with mental health disabilities as well. This includes developments in therapy, in schools where there are professional counselors for students who need help with stress, among others. Society as a whole has also learned more about disability due to technology and the increase in the use of social media, that has allowed for commercials and other online campaigns to reach communities and spread awareness more quickly (“Mental Health Guide”).

But some things within society have not changed. As a society we see physical disability but mental health disability is still a form of taboo today and is still neglected for that reason. For those with physical disabilities, there are many services for them, but with mental disabilities there can be a harder time to be recognized as having one to receive care. Mental health disabilities are at an all time high due to many reasons; some of them include social media, school, and other societal stigmas that are felt by people today. Today’s society has come a long way since the premodern era in terms of technology, but there are many improvements to be made and the major one is to understand people can have more than one disability and also recognize that there are more than just physical disabilities.

Why is it that in today's society we believe that people only experience one type of disability?. There are many reasons why we think that. A good place to start is the fact that we can’t see every disability both physically and mentally. Disability can be very hard to see and also recognize. Some physical disabilities can be easy to see, such as an amputation, but some are hard to see like fibromyalgia. Mental health disabilities can be very difficult to notice because they are invisible to the naked eye due to the fact they are hidden on the inside of a person.

Some mental health disabilities come and go like panic and anxiety attacks. Many people across the world experience a mental illness every year that is temporary and doesn't last long. On the other hand, there are many mental health illnesses that are chronic, such as depression and bipolar disorder, and these can be hard to see due to the fact that those diagnoses can be on and off occurrences depending on the severity (“My Parents' Support Shaped My Recovery”).

Another reason behind this thought process is the stigmatizations and stereotypes believed about disability in today's society. Social media and other wide-spread information allows us to see and show only what we want so as a society we sometimes don't see everything that exists. For example, with soldiers that come home from war, we see the physical scars that are left behind but not as much as the mental scars. Also in movies and books the authors and directors get to choose the characteristics of the characters: this means that they often have only one disability at a time. A Fault in Our Stars, which is a movie about two teenagers who have cancer that fall in love, primarily focuses on their love and their battle with cancer and not as much as the mental challenges you might experience with cancer, let alone other possible disabilities one might have.

Societies, both in the premodern and modern eraa, have had many different viewpoints on disability, but one thing we can do is try to come to a better understanding of disability so that we can grow as a society and better ourselves to fully understand the effects of disability.

“A Brief History of the Development & Evolution of Prosthetic Limbs.” AALOS,28 Jan. 2019, www.aalos.com/brief-history-development-evolution-prosthetic-limbs/.

“Disability from 1485-1660.” Historic England​, historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1485-1660/.

“Mental Health Guide.” ​College Stats​, 2019, collegestats.org/resources/mental-health-guide/.

“My Parents' Support Shaped My Recovery.” NAMI​, nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI69Cpr9Oy5QIVBV8NC h1jmg9bEAAYAyAAEgLIFPD_BwE.

“What Is Mental Health?” ​MentalHealth.gov​, 2019, www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health.

Saint Dymphna, the Patron Saint of Mental Health

Mental Health

Yahssyniah Pitts, Student, Fitchburg State University

Mental illness is often not taken seriously and continues to be a constant battle for those who do in fact live with a mental illness to make other people understand the difficulty of some people’s lives due to mental illnesses. The fact is having a mental illness can be a disability, defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” Mental illness can be viewed as an excuse, or as people being "weak," partially due to the fact that it is not a disability that can been seen by looking at someone.

Our society has gotten much better about mental illness over the years. For example, we  now have different types of therapy and exercises within those categories of therapy to assist with processing trauma to depression, and everything in between. There are professionals that know the correct way to diagnose different mental illnesses, what signs and symptoms to look for, including which questions to ask, and medications to assist with different chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain. Compare this, for instance, to the nineteenth century when mental asylums were becoming extremely popular. These types of hospitals were made for the chronically "insane." Though these patients were not treated with the care we have now, many of these asylums would use confining devices on the patient's bed, such as straps to tie them down (Tracy 47). Doctors in these types of institutions truly did not know how to properly handle those with mental illness.

Of course, now that we have done more research, we have become more well-versed in science and have more knowledge on different parts of the brain, how they interact with each other and the body, and what the cause of some mental illness are. It took quite a bit of time for us to get to where we are now. Some previously popular forms of procedures included shock therapy and lobotomies. In some cases as well, they would use these to try and turn those who were gay to straight. This type of therapy is still used today, although very rarely.

Lobotomies are a procedure in which there would be an incision to the frontal lobe. They were primarily done in the 1900’s, and were usually done by "a patient...rendered unconscious by electroshock. Then, an icepick or an icepick like instrument insert it above the patient's eyeball through the orbit of the eye, into the frontal lobes of the brain, moving the instrument back and forth” (“'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey"). This procedure doesn’t sound too enjoyable. In fact, most of these procedures had serious side effects, such as vomiting, eye complications, changes in personality, seizures, etc. And sadly, in some cases, even death. It wouldn’t take much to either hit too hard and too deep and hit the wrong nerve, or just missing the target completely. Thankfully, lobotomies are rarely ever done.

I believe that it is important to learn and know about the history of mental health. Not only to see how mental health and mental care was perceived, but to also learn how it was taken care of, how people accepted or did not accept people who showed signs of a mental illness. For instance, in the Middle Ages, a sanit became very popular as an image for mental health. Her name is Saint Dymphna, and to sum up her incredible, tragic story: her mother died when Dymphna was young, and her father went mad with the grief and sorrow he was feeling. He wanted to marry someone exactly like his wife, so he had the idea to marry his daughter. Dymphna did not agree with that idea and ran away to Geel, Belgium.

Dymphna arrived in Geel and lived there for several months before being found and killed by her father. There was a lot of magic that filled the village of Geel. The villagers even built a church to remember Dymphna, and the village itself still continues to take in those who are mentally ill even after about 700 years. For the village of Geel, the villagers do not call these people patients or clients, and the villagers who take in the mentally ill do not provide them with therapy. Instead, the villagers will simply live with these people, take up their activities and share what interests these people have. They are not seen as being "insane or "crazy," and this has had a very positive affect on these people.

There have been many concerns on the fact that these people are taking in others who do in fact have a mental illness and are not providing them with therapy, which can be very beneficial and provide professional help to deal with such complex mental illness. Though, on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense for those who have mental illness to begin to feel much happier living in Geel. I can’t even imagine the benefits of being surrounded by people who want to understand you and want to see and join in the way you live life with no judgments. I believe that, if we took a type of approach to how Geel approaches their ways of handling mental illness, things could be much different here.

Our society has become much more accepting of mental illness and the symptoms that can be visibly seen, and providing spaces for people with mental illnesses to get the help they need. This sadly doesn’t mean that these places are good at providing care or that people do end up going into these types of hospitals. People can be so hesitant to not only go into these places, but are also very hesitant to believe that either them or someone close to them needs to be put in a mental hospital. 

The downside of our society is that we do still use the words "crazy" and "insane." Most people are so quick to judge, call names, and not take the time to understand what that person is going through, or take the time to carefully approach a person to make sure they are okay. Mental illness is something that needs to be taken more seriously in our society and not taken lightly. I personally have struggled with mental illness for seven years, and I have sadly lost one of my dear friends to suicide. Our society has become much better in the ways we treat mental illnesses, but we do still have a lot of work to fully accept mental illness and being less quick to judge.

Goffman, Erving. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, AldineTransaction, 2009.

Kroll, J., and B. Bachrach. “Sin and Mental Illness in the Middle Ages.” Psychological Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 1984, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6387755.

“'My Lobotomy': Howard Dully's Journey.” NPR, 16 Nov. 2005, https://www.npr.org/2005/11/16/5014080/my-lobotomy-howard-dullys-journey.

“Official Report: Brutal Psychiatric ‘Treatments.’” Citizens Commission on Human Rights, https://www.cchr.org/cchr-reports/brutal-therapies/introduction.html.

Tracy, Kisha. “Trauma and New England Museums.” State of Museums: Voices from the Field, edited by Rebekah Beaulieu, Dawn E Salerno, Mark S. Gold, MuseumsEtc, 2018, pp. 43-64.