Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Culture of Disability

Just as any culture usually derives from a common history, the culture of disability refers to a wide range of people who share commonalities with regard to a loss of some type of functioning. In the eyes of society as well as some individuals who have a disability, these losses make them appear different and separate them from the norm. Individuals can have psychological or physical losses or deficiencies that can challenge normal functioning (normal meaning according to a standard norm.) Many of these individuals have a difficult time doing routine daily activities that most people do without thinking. Self-determination, for many of these individuals is a life-long challenge (Sue & Sue, 2008). Lipp, Kolstoe, and James (1968) believe individuals with disabilities can have complex psychosocial problems deriving primarily from feeling and appearing different from everyone around them.

Commonalities to this group include the inability to find gainful employment, societal perceptions of deficiency, negative self-perceptions, and the challenges of navigating in through a world poorly designed for some disabilities (U.S. Department of Justice, 1991). As with any culture, the culture of disability shares attitudes, beliefs, and values. For example, many individuals with disabilities dislike being treated as deficient people. They find solace and camaraderie and a sense of empowerment working together to surmount the challenges presented by their disabilities. Being a minority culture in a broader culture, they have similar experiences and feelings.

I believe one difference between this culture and others is the unchanging nature of their disabilities. Typically, cultures are not static, but are constantly in flux; however, individuals with disabilities do not have the power to change their physical conditions. Perhaps this is why so many members of this culture work toward changing their own perceptions as well as those of society. Another difference is that in disability culture, its membership is separate from the culture of their family and friends and it ostracizes them from the greater culture.

Implications in Counseling

One implication of counseling individuals with disabilities is creating a reasonably accessible environment in which they can be comfortable. The Americans with Disabilities Act has made significant contributions of creating awareness and effectively changing the design templates in a variety of applications for ease of use for these individuals (Sue & Sue, 2008). Ultimately as with any minority population, counselors need to reflect on personal bias and prejudice toward people with disabilities and learn how to treat them with the same respect given to all clients. Having a disability neither renders a person incompetent, devalued, or useless, nor does it make them superhuman members of society. Sue and Sue (2008) list "Things to Remember when Interacting with Individuals with Disabilities" (p. 484). This inventory contains valuable ideas for counselors working with individuals with disabilities.

Mental health counselors need to assess their own comfort level when working with individuals with disabilities and, as Sue and Sue (2008) mention, focus on the individual, not the disability. It is important to recognize the actual skills of individuals with disabilities without sensationalizing what they can and do accomplish. Helping these individuals explore options and resources is important as well.


Lipp, L., Kolstoe, R., & James, W. (1968). Denial of disability and internal control of reinforcement: A study using a perceptual defense paradigm. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 32(1), 72-75. doi: 10.1037/h0025453

Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

U.S. Department of Justice. (1991). 1991 ADA Standards for accessible design. Department of Justice ADA Title III Regulation 28 CFR Part 36. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/reg3a.html

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