Viewing Disability Differently

I wrote a recent post about how telling politically incorrect jokes is ok, and apparently, I’m not the only person that feels this way. In a Huffington Post article from April 8, Robert Slayton notes the irony of a headline that proclaims “Wheelchair Speaker Not Motivational.”

He goes on to explain that people in wheelchairs are basically unexceptional in their normality; he points out that disabled people are not endowed with special powers of courage or motivation. We are not particularly heroic for getting through the day. Slayton calls the idea of the under-able over-acheiver “The ‘Helen Keller’ model.” It is a stereotypical depiction.


As stereotypes go, this is one of the better ones. After all, it’s flattering to be seen as inspirational and noble before you ever say or do anything. Sure, there is a danger that we’ll fall dramatically short of this image, but the bar is set so low that this is nearly impossible. More interesting to me is the idea of complementary typecasting, being put in a beneficial box.

Can stereotyping be a good thing?


According to Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Reserch Center for the past three years, these generalizations are neither good nor bad. Instead, they are useful.

“Stereotyping is a way of processing information,” she said. “It’s a way to take something that’s not familiar and put it in your brain next to something that makes sense. People make mental models all the time, and the first one is usually inaccurate.”

She explained that stereotypes form out of a necessity to quickly sort and interpret the barrage of data that we’re hit with every day. We organize people into categories based on appearance (among other criteria) because it’s fast and easy. It’s like the Cliff’s Notes of mental processes.

Obviously, the key is to go back to that hastily sketched mental model whenever possible and examine the components more carefully. A generalization works is a temporary, umbrella-like idea, but to really interpret accurate information, it’ll take more time.

As for the flattering pigeonhole that disabled people are placed in, I choose to recognize the good fortune of being saddled with a possibly undeserved, probably well-intentioned cookie-cutter image. It could certainly be worse. Even as I acknowledge this, I counter the idea of the model-minority, the “Helen Keller” paradigm by just being me. I’m plenty flawed, and people will see it soon enough, as deception and guile are not my strong suits. In seeing my quirks and foibles, people will be forced to challenge the idea of putting a handicapped person on a pedestal.

It’s been said, though, that stereotypes come from somewhere, that they’re based in a grain of truth. The stereotype for the exceptional disabled community is no exception. After all, we are pretty great.

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Comments on: "Are Stereotypes a Good Thing?" (4)

  1. steven said:

    You’re such a stereotypical good person. Maybe you should work on your guile and deception.

  2. Deanna said:

    Most other communities try very hard to dispel social stereotypes. I wonder if the disabled community feels similarly or instead embraces this particular stereotype?

  3. As I was reading this, I could help but wonder. I mean, anyone who found themselves handicapped, if not completely without strength or love for life, will find a way to overcome it. It’s survival. It’s the quest for life and love and happiness. At least, despite the handicap, you are still alive. You know?

    So you make me suddenly wonder, and think it quite possible, that with each handicap person who is viewed as a ‘hero’, even if the bar is set set low as you say, that it is a hope to them that, if these people can do it, than they themselves can too if it’s ever required of them. It’s a testament to the fact that humans are constantly adapting to their environment and their place in that environment, and to knowing that they can manage it.

    I hope what I said made sense. It’s probably a pretty obvious realization to come by, but, still, human nature is always fascinating. Thank you for sharing this. :)

    • Hi Cail,

      Thank you for reading the The D Card, and for your comment. I’m sorry I couldn’t get back to you sooner. I do hope that there are people who take inspiration from people with disabilities. As I said, the stereotype is a benevolent one, and I have no problems with it. You’re right, it’s wonderful how people can adapt to their environment in order to live their lives as fully as possible, and those compensation truly deserve a measure of respect. My one concern is that people might view D Card as being on some pedestal, as a model for an inspiring overachiever, before they know them. My point is just that people are people. There are those with disabilities who are wonderful, and those who are not. Stereotypes are useful ways to organize an onslaught of unfamiliar information, but I hope that everyone remembers that the stereotypes (even the nice ones!) don’t apply to everyone.

      I hope you keep reading the blog, and feel free to share any other thoughts you might have! :-)

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