A panel convened at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon to discuss society’s attitude toward those with perceived disabilities included (from left) Sarah Knudson, Kylee-Anne Hingston and Paulette Hunter. (Photo by Alisha Pomazon)
SASKATOON — Members of the Saskatoon community gathered with staff, faculty and students at St. Thomas More College (STM) on the evening of Feb. 1 to discuss how we approach disability as a society. The discussion, led by three members of the STM faculty, addressed how social stigmas associated with disability adversely affect members of the disability community, where these stigmas come from, and how the larger community can move forward to become more inclusive and respectful of those with disability.
Dr. Kylee-Anne Hingston, a lecturer in English, began the discussion with a brief history of Disability Studies. Disability Rights, a movement that finds its roots in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, first rose to prominence in the 1970s. According to Hingston, a fundamental aspect of understanding the disability rights movement is distinguishing between “impairment” and “disability.”
Whereas impairment speaks to a physical or cognitive limitation in an individual, disability refers to the social limitations imposed on people who have physical or cognitive limitations. As an example, Hingston asked the audience if society would consider a person in a wheelchair “disabled” if every staircase was replaced with a ramp. Though the person may still not have complete use of his or her legs, that person’s ability to move around would not be constricted, and that person would not be “disabled” in any meaningful way.
Hingston went on to explain how significant stories are in forming and changing the way we understand disability, which dovetailed with clinical psychologist and professor Dr. Paulette Hunter’s presentation. Rather than begin with an explanation of her professional work studying the effects of dementia, she told the audience her own story of growing up with an aunt who had spina bifida. Hunter explained how her grandparents’ decision to bring her aunt into the family home rather than institutionalize her was key to her aunt not only living, but thriving.
The final panelist, sociology professor Dr. Sarah Knudson, said she became interested in disability studies not through personal experiences, but through expanding her area of study to be inclusive of different communities. Knudson has studied intimate relationships, dating, and family for most of her academic career, but only recently began doing research around the experience of people with disabilities when they pursue relationships, whether romantic or friendship.
She noted that there have been many studies exploring mainstream attitudes toward disability. Though this can be helpful to understand and change negative attitudes, there are surprisingly few studies that engage directly with people who have disabilities. She has recently begun several community research projects that she hopes will help give voice to this often-marginalized population.
A lively question period followed the panel, in which audience members asked questions ranging from larger historical discussions around theory and institutionalization, to concrete questions about how audience members could change their behaviour to support people who have disabilities in their own lives and communities.
Overall, the panel agreed that the most important thing any community or person could do is to open their minds when considering disability. Knudson noted that one of the biggest barriers she has encountered in this work is from people assuming that nothing can change — or worse, nothing needs to change.
The panelists, who have all made volunteering an optional part of many of their classes through STM’s Engaged Learning Office, said that a fundamental part of changing mindsets is giving people the opportunity to encounter people with disabilities. It is through meaningful encounters that people are transformed, and the fear or discomfort people might feel concerning disability is able to dissipate.
“Unless you die very young, at some point in your life you are more than likely going to have to deal with a disability of your own,” Hingston said. “We need to get away from the idea that there is such a thing as ‘normal.’ ”
Ward, a regular PM columnist, is the Engaged Learning co-ordinator at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.