Whitewashing disability

Apparently, today ends National Patient Accessibility Week, a fact which I didn’t know in spite of my experience over the last couple of years in the disability world as a graduate assistant at the Institute of Community Inclusion, a member organization of UMass Boston founded on a diversity of missions and a collective force of intellectualism and commitment to social change. Disability organizations often focus on the prejudice people with disabilities struggle with over other social issues – such as racism, poverty, and so on – which makes sense. In my work and nowadays, the glossing over of other intersecting issues would bug me; more often, I would simply note them and move on. Today I just couldn’t.

Sun Life Family Health Center, a health care provider based in Casa Grande, Arizona, put a photo campaign on Facebook to bring awareness to National Patient Accessibility Week, which is great. However, upon a moment’s reflection, you’d swear the ad was made in the 1950s. Two blond, slender, pretty white women are engaged in conversation; the younger of the two is holding up a paper for the elder woman, who smiles and sits in a wheelchair, to see. The latter is wearing a silky, elegant blouse, with her hair equally soft-looking and coiffed; you get the feeling that these women really get each other, as though in another life they were family or friends.

Statistically, people with disabilities have a higher poverty rate than average people in this country (click here for more information related to socioeconomics and disability), and are certainly not well-represented by a wealthy-looking white woman looking the picture of health except for her poor body. People with disabilities come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and it is just as likely – though much less reassuringly Barbie-esque – that they will have other health challenges in addition to their disability, especially people who are non-White. All of this not to mention the fact that people with physical disabilities tend to be the group the general public feels most comfortable with and historically have used to represent disability, in contrast to the harder-to-categorize subgroups of people with cognitive, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. We don’t know how to feel about people who are homeless in general (are they lazy? are they unlucky? are they unwell? is it the system?, etc.), and we tend to look askance of people who break the law and are incarcerated; however, in both instances (see here and here, respectively), the rate of disability tends to be much higher than in the general population.

We cannot whitewash these people, those multicolored, often lower-income folk, the worst-off of whom shift between existence in psychiatric institutions, prisons, and the streets, so it’s often easier to sweep their stories away from the public eye and focus on the easy stories. The veterans. The kids who get into accidents. The pretty white women who still show up with a smile on their faces, the poor dears. The fact that the photo showed women who were most likely models doesn’t excuse the choice; in fact, it’s more of an indictment. How about not worrying about the marketing involved in getting new clients with disabilities (one of the goals of a health conglomerate like Sun Life), and considering the fact that money spent on these Disneyland, myopic views of people with disabilities could be better spent on raising awareness of what disability really is and who people with disabilities really are?

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