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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Society As A Human Product

We can say something important about someone with frightening economy. Like a swift brushstroke, a word or a label can define a person quickly in our society. Educators, therapists, clinicians and the medical community do this all the time in the name of educating, placing and servicing individuals with special needs “appropriately.” Appropriateness, of course, is a construction. What does it mean to act or behave appropriately in order to fit in, and who is making those decisions? More importantly, who is excluded from participating in many facets of society if one cannot participate within the confines of “social appropriateness?" In other words, who is making up the terms, the methods and the definitions? Who has the power? Who lacks the agency?

In the essays by Harlan Lane, Construction of Deafness and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Society as a Human Product, they both build cases upon which we can view how we have altered our views of deaf and other groups (or one might say “classifications” of human beings) which has resulted in the institutions and services we build around them, for such classifications are constructed for the purposes of general segregation and treatment.

Those institutions and services which appear to later generations as opaque (in other words, in existence for such a long time that the construct appears to be “just the way things are” (Berger, Luckmann)), were created as a result of turning ways of being human into social and medical problems. Those problems needed laws, budgetary provisions and workers. (Lane) Once the construction of policies, laws and services is initiated, there emerges an economic and political control and power over others. It would be naïve to suggest that our economic system is immoral, however, the nature of competition, and the “self-aggrandizement of the troubled-persons professions” (Lane, p.81) creates this tension between those using the service and those providing it. It leaves those so-called “troubled persons,” (Lane) in “need of help” and fixing. They are often called “clients” – consumers of the treatment or product and are then left out of the decision making process about their own lives, for it might meddle with the marketing model or render the construction, as it stands (patient-professional dynamic) obsolete. While today many institutions are no longer in existence, we still have an established patient-client service community as well as centres which segregate and often attempt to correct the behaviour or “performance,” of the disabled individual. Once placed in a centre, autonomy over one’s life is thwarted in order to comply with the order of things.

“Institutions always have a history, of which they are products,” say Bergman and Luckmann. “It is impossible to understand an institution adequately without an understanding of the historical process in which it was produced.” It is rather sinister to view ourselves as products and constructions. Yet, the commodifcation of human beings happens every day, on every level, from race to gender to disability, so sinister it is. What we think of ourselves as well as others, is the product we become continue Berger and Luckmann who state,

1. Society is a human product;
2. Society is an objective reality;
3. Man is a social product.

At least, the authors suggest, in the context of the institutional world (we must remember their article is written in 1966), it is experienced as an objective reality because the institution was in existence before the individual belonging to it was born.

If we are the product of our own making, we have to assume that we can change the way we look, treat and regard ourselves and others as well as our social “issues.” To think of humans as a product of social construction, one only needs these days to look at the targeting of the autistic community as a people suffering from an “epidemic” rather than a culture of people who have existed since the dawn of mankind. The construction of this unproven and unsubstantiated epidemic has sparked a deluge of autism service-providers, schools, drugs and educational products sold to parents who have been told that they can “fix” or “cure” their autistic child. In fact, many parents are made to feel socially irresponsible if they don’t try. In the context of Bergman and Luckmann’s argument, how might an autistic child view him or herself in such a world that doesn’t accept autism? What of their objective reality as they experience it?

It also helps us to look to other communities to witness how easily reality can shift. Lane recalls the historic attitudes and treatment of alcoholics and homosexuals to compare the dichotomous attitudes within and without of the deaf community. He illustrates the way we have changed the view of alcoholics as those who victimized their families in the era of the Temperance Movement to today as people who have a “disease,” and as such, we have constructed various hospitals, programs and treatments as well as raising money for research. One might conclude that the medicalization of nearly everything from disability, to various “isms,” to a woman’s natural biology – PMS to menopause -- are now medical problems in need of “treatment,” drugs, and support groups.

Homosexuality was once a “problem owned by the church” (Lane p. 79). We know that our recent history has viewed homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder and was listed in he Diagnostic Statistical Manual. Recently, due to pride movements and the “coming out” of the gay community, homosexuality is viewed as a way of being and existing in the world – not as aberrant or deviant – but both biologically and socially determined. The pride movement has done much to put “gay rights” into the faces of the “rest” of us, and the community has worked collectively to define themselves as a culture in a society that has otherwise taken measures, even in our recent history, to pathologize them and thus, “treat” and institutionalize them.

Instead of rigorously critiquing our creation of various human “products,” and ourselves -- as vulnerable to bias in the name of economic gain and power -- it is easier and more profitable, likely, to place the blame and onus on those with the difference or disability to change. It is the basis upon which we build our services. The power dynamic, in order to maintain this status quo, takes away the voice, opinions and the agency of our most vulnerable citizens.

It is this last point that Lane makes which is concerning. He notes, and I contend, that the dichotomous dialogue ongoing within the deaf community is most telling of how society constructs disease, aberrance, deviance and “problems,” and how difficult it is for the community-in-question to maintain some consensus in a world that prefers to simplify issues for the sake of efficacy, simplicity and often, profit or cost-saving. From within the deaf community itself, there is a difference of opinion. Some prefer cochlear implants and work to be a part of, or some might argue “conform” to society’s expectations, and others prefer to maintain the language of deaf culture which is embodied in their language, or ASL. The political ramifications of maintaining culture and adapting to the largesse of society has been contentious and it is important in understanding that within groups and cultures, there exist individuals.

Lane states that some within the inclusion movement wish to abolish all segregated schools, but the deaf culture illustrates that such an act would be a mistake, as many within the deaf community have “returned” to their deaf community. Some prefer to be in segregated settings while others feel they belong to the larger disability rights movement. “Neither culturally deaf people nor people with disabilities area homogenous group.” (Lane, p. 87) “It is because disability advocates think of Deaf children as disabled that they want to close the special schools and absurdly plunge Deaf children into hearing classrooms in a totally exclusionary program called inclusion. It is because government is allowed to proceed with a disability construction of cultural Deafness that the U.S. Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs has refused for decades to provide special resources for schools with large numbers of ASL-using children although the law requires it to do so for children using any other non-English language.” (Lane).

Such an assessment of inclusion is certainly troubling. What is most concerning is a reverse construction of a disability rights movement – one which claims that it can removed the services, like ASL in the classroom, because “lawmakers have been encouraged to believe by some disability advocates and prominent deaf figures that Deaf people are disabled that , in response to the Gallaudet Revolution, the U.S. Congress passed a law, not recognized ASL or the DEAF-WORLD as a minority, but a law establishing another institute of health, The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders [sic] operated by the deafness troubled-persons industry, and sponsoring research to reduce hereditary deafness.” (Lane p. 87-88). My take on Lane’s argument here is that it is just as problematic to over-generalize disability as “just another kind of normal,” and therefore do nothing, or even revoke rights to maintain itself as both individual and community, as much as it would be to assume that disabled people are “tragic victims,” and therefore subjugate them to “treatment” (p.88).

As a mother with an autistic son, inclusion is an important goal for our family, but not at the cost of obscuring, nullifying, prettifying, and ignoring his disability. In other words, when we allow the special identity of cultural groups, be they Downs, Deaf, Autistic and so forth, to be subsumed only within the solidarity of a larger disability rights movement, which indeed share the stigma and struggle in a society that does not accept or understand disability and more often than not, catastrophizes it, the solutions for these unique groups may then become the wrong solutions (Lane). One might say, then, society misinterprets disability, because of its lack of acceptance and engagement with disabled individuals, and then over-generalizes by assuming, if we take the inclusion example, that we can throw a disabled person into a “regular” classroom and that’s the end of the obligation.

Therefore, we cannot allow, yet again, the construction of a general disability-discourse to obfuscate the challenges, medical needs, the accommodations or the unique identity (as well as variance within) a group. Not all disabled people require the same accommodations or have the same needs. “Disability rights” as another “brushstroke” or label must be defined for and by the very group concerned. The professionals and lawmakers unfamiliar with the challenges of the minority group must not define it. The group must have the ability to define themselves and act in the realm of public administration on behalf of their own needs. The rest of us must pay close attention.


Berger, Peter L. & Luckmann, Thomas (1966). Society as a human product. In The Construction of Social Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books. Excerpts (pp.51-55, 59-61).

Lane, H. Construction of Deafness. (2006) .The Disability Studies Reader. Second Edition, New York: Routledge, . (pp.79-92)


Blogger laurentius rex said...

But is it?

If you really tie into the notion of causality following the arrow of entropy everything that happened had to happen because of the way in which the universe came into being.

However there are those that invoke quantum mechanics to allow variability and uncertainty, and when you get to the superstring people, well what do you know?

All I do know is that the Hsdron collider is FUBAR, well that was inevitable was it not, It was written :)

The human is but another aspect of the natural world and for that matter the supernatural one, before we existed existance did but you know trees californian Uni campi, lumberjacks earplugs and all, who knows?

3:50 PM  

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