Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Of disabilities and bad attitudes

There’s a meme about disabilities and bad attitudes making the rounds, again. It’s been weighing on my mind for a while and it’s high time I explained why it gets under my skin.

Scott Hamilton‘s quote is a patronising and demeaning statement disguised as an inspirational message. He said:

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude”

To be sure, having a “positive attitude” (however one defines *that*) helps in getting through life. But it doesn’t overcome all, nor even most, barriers. To imply otherwise puts the onus on the person with a disability for being unable to overcome barriers.

  • No amount of positive attitude will allow a wheelchair user to go up a flight of stairs.
  • No amount of positive attitude will allow someone who is blind to read a printed document.
  • No amount of positive attitude will lessen the impact of overstimulation in a store for someone who has autism.
  • No amount of positive attitude will allow someone who is Deaf to hear you if you speak behind their back.
  • No amount of positive attitude will get you through arcane policy requirements.
  • And the list goes on…

What is a disability anyway? A while back I wrote a post trying to define disability. I explored the concept that having an impairment becomes a disability when interacting with a non-accessible society – using a wheelchair is not disabling, it only becomes disabling when you face stairs and narrow doors, etc. To suggest that the only disability is having a bad attitude, is to imply the individual with an impairment is at fault. It’s like telling the guy who is paralysed after he broke his neck in a car accident “Hey, the only reason you’re not walking is because you don’t want it hard enough”.

In some respect, that is akin to suggesting to a woman who was raped that, had she dressed in a modest fashion, she wouldn’t have been raped. It’s both untrue and blames the “victim” (and I’m not suggesting here that people with disabilities are victims).

Apart from physical barriers, people with disabilities do encounter many attitudinal barriers. Hamilton is an inspiration porn star if ever there was one. His quote is liable to generate even more attitudinal barriers. People who “buy” it are reassured in their perception that if someone with a disability encounters a barrier, it’s that person’s fault, instead of placing the responsibility for barriers and discrimination where it belongs, on society. That quote resonates with a lot of people because non-disabled people want to hear it. They want to believe it.

That’s where such quotes are pernicious. It sounds good. It’s snappy. It’s attractive. And yet, it really hurts. I’ve said before, I’m not one for political correctness in language for PC’s sake. Still, there is power in language.

Please don’t accept the idea that disability is the individual’s fault. Don’t disseminate that message. Just don’t do it!