Society plays a huge role in how individuals perceive themselves and negotiate their identities. The way people with disabilities are integrated into, or separated from, their communities sends important messages about their positions in society. This is something that Torrie Dunlap, an educator and advocate for the disability community, feels is a pivotal subject to address, especially regarding children with disabilities.
Fighting for Inclusion
Torrie believes that people with disabilities should not be segregated from the general community. Separating people with disabilities more often than not perpetuates the stigma that they do not have a voice, and cause them to be further disenfranchised from society. Instead, communities should strive to promote an inclusive model that celebrates people of all abilities. And this should start with the young.
When Torrie was a drama major, an incident that occurred defined the rest of her career and outlook towards the disabled community. She was producing a play that required child singers, and they casted a young girl in a wheelchair who had a lovely singing voice. “I remember casting her in the play and feeling so excited about having someone with special needs in the show,” Torrie recalled. She knew that this would be a fantastic opportunity for the young girl, and also for audiences to “see someone using a wheelchair on the stage.”
Upon casting, they worked on the set design. They eventually created traditional bleachers for all the singers, but also with a cutout so that the girl could sit in her wheelchair next to the other children. Proud of the work of her team, Torrie could not wait to show the young girl their design.
However, this was met with confusion by the girl, who questioned: “How come I don’t get to sit on the bleachers like the other kids?” This question struck a chord with Torrie, who then realized that she had not considered the girl’s opinions and unintentionally marginalized her.
“I had been so caught up in the visuals and my own good feelings about this that I had completely lost sight of the fact that she had a choice in how she participated and I had not even thought to ask her. I had turned her from a 7th grader who likes to sing and just wants to be in a play with friends into some kind of poster child for disability representation in the arts.”
This lesson resonated with Torrie, who is now a strong advocate for inclusion. Now, she is also the CEO of ‘Kids Included Together’, a grassroots non-profit that targets the needs of children of all abilities.
And through her experience, Torrie has come to understand the most important factor that can push for more accessible, inclusive communities: the way we think.
“I have learned from 20 years immersion in this field that we can overcome out fears and the barriers that separate children with and without disabilities by changing our mindset.”
Reframing the perception of disability
With that, Torrie explains that everybody has a mental model, which is weaved together by our history, knowledge, assumptions, experience or lack thereof, and by the media. These models essentially shape the way we think and view the world. They play an important role as to why schools and communities have yet to be fully inclusive – and that is because many often believe that people and children with disabilities belong to a community that is separate from the general community.
“We have moved from hiding and institutionalizing kids to a world where children with disabilities are seen as special and placed in special settings and given special services with special caregivers, and they, and their families, have become disenfranchised from the community at large. And they have become, in fact, their own separate community."
She goes on further to compare the terms “special” and “separate,” explaining that people may have converged the two definitions together. “I believe that ‘special’ has become a euphemism for ‘separate’, and when we separate kids and we place them in separate settings and give them separate services, we are teaching them that their place is over there, with people like them, and not as part of the full community.”
Such attitudes towards people and children with disabilities are detrimental to how they negotiate their positions in society. In turn, this will also affect how they contribute to society.
Thus, there are three main mental models surrounding disability that exist in society, and the mental model that people adopt is crucial to the rhetoric of disability inclusion.
Models of disability
Medical model. The medical model is one that “views disability as a problem that needs to be cured or fixed,” and this is the model that is most reflected in society today. People who adopt this model usually lead with feelings of sympathy, not empathy. They feel sorry for those with disabilities, and feel charitable and kind when they can offer help. “We are assuming that children who have disabilities have a poor quality of life, that they can’t learn, and that they can’t achieve. We assume they need something different than other kids because they are special,” Torrie explains. It places emphasis on the difference of people with disabilities, making it difficult for others to be able to integrate them into their own communities.
Social model. The social model differs from the medical model in identifying the root of the problem. While the medical model sees disabilities as something to be fixed, the social model directs its attention to societal barriers, seeing the environment as a potential disabling factor. Therefore, it proposes to change how individuals interact with the environment, including promoting accessibility and inclusion.
Biopsychosocial model. The biopsychosocial model is a more holistic approach to thinking about disability, and this is the model which Torrie subscribes to. It “accepts that disability labels and diagnoses are an important part of a person’s identity,” and at the same time “understands that the environment plays a role in someone’s ability to function [as well].”
Mental models play an essential role when we examine how the disabled community is integrated into society at large. Although there are activities and events “specially” designed for people with disabilities, the real question that should be posed is, as Torrie suggests, why activities can’t be catered to people of all abilities.
Separate does not mean equal
By creating separate activities for people with disabilities, the message that is sent out to them and to the general public is that they belong to a separate community, further alienating them from society. Torrie lists three different examples of such activities that she has witnessed: A rodeo night for “Challenged Buckaroos”; A special photo-taking session with Santa Claus in the mall for children with special needs, or as they call it, “Caring Santa”; “Special Needs Prom”, a separate prom from their own school’s prom for teenagers with special needs.
While these events may have good intentions, Torrie invites people to evaluate the barriers that may be posed if these events were coordinated for people of all abilities instead.
“Picture what a day at the rodeo could look like with all kinds of kids there. They would provide extra assistance to kids who needed it, but other than that, would anything really have to change?”
Additionally, the case of “Special Needs Prom” informs both teenagers with and without disability that they are separated by ability. Such messages are equally detrimental to both parties and further perpetuate a society that is exclusive and non-accommodating to people of all abilities.
Therefore, what should be pushed for, instead, is creating an environment where everybody is included. For instance, Torrie’s 8-year-old friend, Addie, is a wheelchair-user and doesn’t use her own voice to communicate. In her first and second grade, Addie participated in a class performance. In her first grade performance, Addie was placed behind a wall, separated from her peers who were on stage. However, with a new teacher in second grade performance, Addie had a new and meaningful role in her second grade performance. Not only was she placed on stage, she also had the important task of playing the prerecorded message that thanked the audience for coming to the performance. “The teacher had seen the barriers, and she had overcome them,” says Torrie.
Creating communities that are accessible to people of all abilities not only benefits people with disabilities, but those without disabilities as well. It emphasizes the message that everyone is important, included, and has an equal voice and place in society. It will also build our future generations up to be confident individuals.
This article is a part of our #AbleFamilies campaign in Singapore. Stay tuned for real life stories, advice and experiences from people who believe in and represent the potential of all kids. By now empowering the thousands of kids with disabilities in Singapore and supporting their parents and caregivers, we strengthen the next generation of citizens to promote a more inclusive Singapore.