I am convinced about the argument that Normality is socially constructed. This essay will look at how Normality is socially constructed in relation to disability and how it can impact their life chances and choices in later life. The essay will begin by looking at what normality and social construction are and how it works. To explain social construction I am using the specific topic of disabled children. I will look at some theoretical perspectives on how social construction works, Mead and Cooley and their labelling theory, labelling theorists and their theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy, I have explored the medical and social models of disability. Throughout this essay, I will include different published writings these will include media newspapers, an academic journal and various Internet sources, and look at how the media plays such a large part in how we are socially constructed.
We can begin this essay by thinking about what is ‘normal’ we can argue that our concept of Normality is gotten through the media and that all children at birth are labelled and the society is the perpetuating force behind the list of all ism’s (such as sexism, racism) of all people who do not fit into the mainstreams of ideas of ‘normal’ but that is an essay in itself. The notion of Normality is crucial in this area of disability since those powerful, dominant groups have socially constructed it. Society has constructed norms and how disability has been portrayed as a deviation from such a norm.
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Social construction is “The process whereby natural, instinctive forms of behaviour come to be mediated by social processes. Sociologists would argue that most forms of human behaviour are socially constructed” Bilton et al, (2002). What this quote is saying is that everything we do, think and feel is defined in different ways we have been socially constructed. You could say then that all our ideas are then programmed into us while we are growing up and then reinforced in adult life through our environment. It is no wonder then that within our society where disabled children are mostly schooled in a segregated special school or put into an institution, where most facilities don’t accommodate the needs of disabled children that the general public feels uncomfortable, in awe and do things such as stare when they encounter disabled children.
Language is a powerful means of construction; it is one of the most influential ways in which we gain knowledge. Language changes over time, not only in the way it is spoken but the words that are used. Historically words used to describe individuals with disabilities have been, spastic, dunce, moron, cripple, handicapped and lame. A word such as spastic was used until very recently; it can be found and defined in the Collins gem English pocket dictionary of 1987 yet cannot be found in a Collins concise dictionary of 1997, the word closest to spastic in this edition is spasmodic meaning convulsive. Although once used as a way of describing a person with a disability it is now seen as a derogatory term. But this was not always the case it was used widely by medical professionals for example.
The normality – abnormality constructs is an inherent feature of the ‘medical model’ where disabled people are seen as the problem. They need to be adapted to fit the world as it is. If this is not possible, then they should be hidden away in a specialised institution where their basic needs are met (Barnes et al, 1999). The emphasis is on dependence, supported by the stereotypes of disability that call forth pity, fear and patronising attitudes. Usually, the focus is on the impairment rather than the needs of the person. The power to change them seems to lie within the medical professions, with their talk of cures and normalization. Similar control is exercised over them by the design of the built environment presenting disable people with many barriers, thereby making it difficult or impossible for their needs to be met and hindering their life chances.
Many disabled people internalize negative views of themselves that create feelings of low self-esteem and achievement, further reinforcing non-disabled people’s assessment of their worth. The ‘medical model’ view of disable people creates a cycle of dependency and exclusion, which is difficult to break. The medical model’s thinking about disables people dominates in schools where ‘special educational needs ‘ are thought of as resulting from the individual who is seen as different, faulty and needing to be assessed and made as normal as possible. The ‘Social model’ of disability views the barrier that prevents disabled people from participating in any situation as what disables them. The ‘social model’ define disability as very different things.
In corroboration, the position of disabled people and the discrimination against them are socially constructed. This has little to do with their impairments. Disabled people are often made to feel it’s their own fault that they are different. The difference is that some part, or parts, of their body or mind, are limited in their functioning. This does not make them any less of a human being. But most people have not been brought up to accept them. Through fear, ignorance and prejudice, barriers and discriminatory practices develop which disable them. The understanding of this process of disablement allows disabled people to feel good about themselves and empowers them to fight for their human rights.
This model meant that the oppression disabled people have been experiencing for years was located within societal attitudes and actions and was not just an individualistic feeling. Foucauldian theory concentrates on the dominant medical discourse which has concentrated definitions of Normality (health) and deviance (sickness). This discourse provides subjects in modern societies with the vocabulary through which their medical needs and remedies are defined. The medical model of disability has been critiqued for the way in which they view disabled people as somehow ‘lacking’ unable to play a ‘full role’ in society. Social model approaches generally argue that the disabled are excluded by necessary societal barriers: a wheelchair user is disabled when a building does not have ramp access: a deaf person is disabled if a service provider does not provide a minicom for them to access that service.
In this view, the ‘problem’ is not the disabled person, but the lack of appropriate goods and services. This approach is most often stated as seeing the category of disability as a social construct, explained with reference to medical and political agendas and emphasising the historical development of institutional discriminatory practice ( Finkelstein, 1981). Labelling theorists such as Mead and Cooley have focused on what happens to individuals once they are labelled. Labelling is where for example a child who is a wheelchair user is labelled as disabled therefore giving meaning to them not being normal not having the ability to be able to achieve something. Or to call a disabled child retarded is a label that many children with learning disabilities have been called. Labelling theory “adopted an anti-positivist relativism in which social reality was not straight forward, pre-given and absolute but was socially constructed problematic and open to interpretation” Bilton et al, (2002) pg 389. Labelling theory was derived from symbolic integrationist approaches, which focused on symbols and language in human interaction.
Mead believed that it is not what you’re born with, but how you are treated that constructs your identity. Mead says the self is something that develops through the social environment via interaction with others. Mead developed the ‘I’ and ‘me’ theory. The I is your own personal inner concept of self. I am the person society sees you as. Mead sees that we internalise who we are and what we should do through the response of others to our actions. We interpret responses from others using our social knowledge of meanings. Mead also felt the self develops through learning and socialisation. Labelling theorists came up with the term self-fulfilling prophecy to describe what happens to labelled individuals. Being labelled as something outside society’s norms damages a person’s social identity and self-image and a labelled individual may begin to act out their label.
This can have devastating effects on a disabled child for example if a child with learning difficulties is branded as temperamental and hard to control and begins to self prophesise then imagine what could occur in the classroom. As children begin to encounter difficulties in schools they are usually referred to experts who are asked to identify the child’s difficulty. Often the response is to give the child’s difficulty a label. This label increases the child’s chances of being referred to a special education class. Today only if a child has been statemented can or will the funds be found to provide the necessary help. If a child has for example a disability such as dyslexia then they will require someone to help and possibly would benefit from adaptations and aids in making their educational milestones possible.
The new disability bill in Wales and England Jan 2000 has made the following provisions for the education of disabled people in education from nursery through to higher education. It will become unlawful to treat a childless favourably on grounds of their disability, fail to take steps to change policy, practice or procedures which place a disabled child at a disadvantage, and fail to take reasonable steps to ensure that a disabled physical feature does not end in substantial disadvantage to the disabled child. The media is probably the most powerful way in which we are socially constructed. Images of disability in the past have shown sympathy images to create a feeling of pity from the general public. Images like the disabled child looking lost and forlorn and creating this pitiful feeling worked well for charitable causes.
These images are based on the tragedy model of disability of what a shame, bring out feelings of what did I do wrong in disabled children. Disabled people within large movements such as the disabled people’s movement campaigned for change and have succeeded in changing perceptions in the media through showing disabled children doing sports such as basketball, and looking happy and integrated more into society. This is slowly changing our perceptions of what disabilities are therefore they are changing their own social construction. An article in the Sunday times (Redwood, 1996) talks about some education authorities and the lengths they are going to in avoiding responsibility for providing pupils with the help that their disabilities require.
He says there are 211,307 children in schools with special needs. He explains that a child needs to be statemented for an education authority to be legally required to provide provisions but even then some are avoiding doing so at some quite extraordinary lengths. If this is so then how children with special needs are going to receive the education they deserve does this mean that the education system sees them as second class citizens? The fundamental aim of normalization in this definition ensures that people with learning difficulties enjoyed their rights to the same quality of life as non -disabled member of society. An implication of defining equality in these terms was that such equality could be pursued in setting which in these terms was that such equality could be pursued in settings that segregate service users from non-disabled citizens.
Canadian social scientist Wolf Wolfensberger was influential in the early development of the term normalisation. He defined normalization as the utilisation of means, which are as culturally normative as possible in order to establish and/or maintain behaviours, and characteristics, which are as culturally normative as possible. This definition received wider public acclaim as in effect it could be used to govern the design and conduct of virtually any human service. The term normalisation has been applied particularly but not exclusively to people with learning difficulties. Wolfensberger’s social theory of Normalisation provides a blueprint for human services which assists them in contributing towards the revaluation of deviant groups. While the revaluation of disadvantaged groups is likely to lead to improvements in the quality of life of group members, Wolfensberger version of normalization seeks to reverse or safeguard against the basic social processes that result in deviance.
Interestingly, he includes in options for non-coercive change long term reinforcement for emitting that desired responses ( Wolfensberger, 1980:110). For Wolfenbarger ‘the right not to be segregated and institutionalized is really a bigger issue than the restriction of individual choice’. (Wolfensberger, 1980:93). Another article in the Guardian newspaper (Revell, 2001) on education titled “In or out: who is special?” He writes on how well mainstream schools can cater for pupils with disabilities and special needs. In the article Peter Bradley has returned to the UK and found a job in a comprehensive school, he expected changes but was shocked, he says, “the children were out of control and the school management were either unwilling or unable to do anything about it”. Within this comprehensive were children with disabilities. Bradley says he had no warning and no guidance on how to address their needs, he describes the experience as a disaster and was shocked by the way the disabled children were bullied by the others in the group. However, the article does end by saying that inclusion can work in every setting if people want it to but will it ever.
Also in the guardian was a letter to the editor from a parent with two disabled children. Regarding education, she says one of her children is a talented dancer that she and others think cannot survive in a mainstream setting, although this is what the Special educational need(SEN) has recommended, “once she was statemented she fitted in really badly” Broody (2003). Letters and opinions lead us to believe that not all disabled children should be in mainstream schools as they could possibly be detrimental to their well being. Disability Discrimination Act 2005 this act, passed in April 2005, places a duty on all public bodies to promote disability equality. Under this new legislation all public bodies, such as higher education institutions, are required to eliminate unlawful discrimination, promote equal opportunities for disabled people, eliminate disability-related harassment promote positive attitudes towards disabled people.
The academic journal Critical Social Policy, Swain and Cook, (2001), published a paper called “in the name of inclusion: ‘we all, at the end of the day, have the needs of children at heart’. This article looks at the way in which a particular local education authority is adopting the policy of ‘inclusion’ in their borough. Inclusion is the way disabled children are to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers. In this journal the centre for studies on inclusive education (CSIE) say that an inclusive school is community-based: it is not selective exclusive or rejecting but open positive and diverse, inclusive education should be based on a philosophy that has positive valuation and celebrates differences. In conclusion from the above discussion, I believe Normality is socially constructed due to the fact that society has constructed norms. It is the society that disables disabled people as they are not given the right to live a fulfilling life.
If disabled children are not integrated into not only mainstream schools but mainstream life, then disabled children will always have to suffer at the hands of able-bodied children, and later on in life as adults suffer at the hands of able-bodied adults. This is because if the majority of adults who are able-bodied and of an average learning capacity, are socially constructed to think that beauty as the media portray it, and intelligence as something that can be measured simply by using an IQ test, don’t see and interact with disabled people on a normal daily basis then how can disabled children ever be socially constructed in any other way than they are today. If the new disability provisions are properly funded there should be no reason why disabled children of tomorrow cannot be fully integrated into not what are mainstream schools but just schools that provide education regardless of differences.
The disabled people’s movement believes the ‘cure’ to the problem of disability depends on the restructuring of society. Unlike medically based ‘cures’, which focus on the individual and their impairment, this is an achievable goal and to the benefit of everyone. ‘Social model’, suggests those disabled people’s personal and collective disadvantage is due to a complex form of institutional discrimination. Social workers activities should be directed at enabling and empowering individuals and groups to overcome the disabling effects of such barriers. In order to overcome this disabling effect of disadvantage and discrimination, support should be offered in a way that allows people to exercise choice and control, by encouraging self-determination, enabling people to become as independent as possible, taking part in mainstream community life rather than being consigned to segregated settings (Oliver, 1991). Therefore, to challenge discrimination against disabled people, we must begin in our schools. Our fight for the inclusion of all children, however ‘severely’ disabled, in one, mainstream, education system, will not make sense unless the difference between the ‘social ‘ and the ‘medical’ or individual model of disability is understood.
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