Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What is so normal about diversity?

 On January 28, after work, I traveled over to the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus for a lecture by Professor Lennard Davis.  On the UIC Campus, listening to Professor Davis speak, I was reminded of the best, and the most frustrating, academic memories from my days as an undergraduate at Beloit College.  Davis peppered the lecture with enlightening comments.  The words seemed so simple and clear, yet they captured an idea that helped me look at things in a whole new way, as if they opened up a door of understanding that previously had been closed.  But sandwiched around all of the enlightening thoughts was commentary I struggled to follow.  At first, I reminded myself that I hadn't taken a college level course in nearly 15 years.  But then I remembered my days at Beloit and at Northeastern in Chicago, and the many times I sat in a classroom, paying close attention to what the professor said, but comprehending none of it.  After the lecture last night, when talking to some other members of audience, I was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who felt ill-prepared to process what Davis presented.  Nevertheless, what I did understand made the trip worthwhile. 

Davis gave a lecture titled "The end of normal: disability and diversity."  Through the lecture, Davis presented the relationship between diversity and disability.  He traced the evolution of what society values.  Historically, society emphasized and valued what is normal (when compared to what is abnormal or not normal).  Over time, society has come to embrace diversity.  When normal was valued by society, disability was on the abnormal side of the spectrum. This evolution would lead one to believe that as society began to embrace and celebrate differences, disability would find a place on the diversity spectrum and therefore disability would be embraced by society.  This was the question at the heart of Davis' presentation.  What place is there for disability within diversity?  From what I understood, the answer is that disability indeed does not have a place on the diversity spectrum. 

My explanation for why this is so probably won't mesh exactly with what Professor Davis would say.  But that is not because I disagree with what Davis said.  Rather, it is because I didn't really understand everything he said.  But that fact reinforces what I think is great about academic education.  Even if you don't process everything, one can extract nuggets of information that can be applied to different situations in order to open new doors of understanding on an individual level and new perspectives on an individual level.  In any case, from my perspective, I understood Davis to say a number of things.

First of all, though how we label what is of value has evolved from normal to diversity, much of what we actually value hasn't changed.  We find diversity within what was once considered normal.  Because disability originally fell outside the spectrum of normal, it is not on the continuum of diversity.  Davis pointed to an advertisement campaign of Dove Soap to illustrate this point.  Dove purportedly celebrated diversity by producing a commercial that included women whose bodies weren't "perfect."  Yet, Dove's idea of imperfect was a few freckles on a chest, a wrinkly knee, a set of eyes that weren't perfectly symmetric, a crooked smile.  If perfect were a tree, the women in the commercial didn't fall far from it. They were certainly close enough to enjoy the shade.  In the commercial, there were no obese women, there were no anorexic women, and there were no disabled women.  These types of bodies fell outside the accepted spectrum of diversity, or imperfection. 

Secondly, disability falls outside the spectrum of diversity because much of society believes disability to be a medical diagnosis.  While people celebrate different races, different ethnicity's, different genders, and different orientations, people don't celebrate medical impairments.  Since the 1960's and 1970's, the disability community has transitioned from the medical model to the social model.  Among many other things, this means that people don't identify within the context of a medical diagnosis that suggests one needs to be fixed or cured, but rather identify within the context of a cultural identity that is to be embraced, studied, and celebrated.  Though this idea has inspired and shaped progress in the form of the Americans with Disabilities Act and many other cultural advancements, many Americans still view disabled people as people defined by medical needs and medical treatment, not people who deserve cultural recognition.

When asked what can be done to bridge the gap between disability and the diversity spectrum, Davis sounded hopeful.  He said the community needs to keep doing what it has been doing.  It needs to keep raising awareness about cultural identity.  This is done throughout the country with disability pride parades, ADA Celebrations, and events celebrating artistic achievements within the community.  Yet, Davis cautioned that we shouldn't be content with finding a place on the diversity spectrum.  Because if the methodology behind the spectrum isn't changed, even if disability finds a place, there will always be groups that are left out.  The goal should be changing what society means by diversity.

No comments:

Post a Comment