Disability Awareness: A book review of sorts

This entry originally appeared on my disability blog, I hate stairs.

You may not be able to tell from the title, but this post is going to be a book review of sorts. One Mary Johnson from one Ragged Edge Magazine penned a manual called “Disability Awareness—Do It Right!

I was inspired to read this book, which I actually bought last year, because my student organizations disability awareness event(s) are coming up in October. Had I known that this book would help me clarify my perception of disability and awareness of it, I would of read it the day I bought it.

Johnson begins the path to understanding by helping the reader “unlearn” the things he or she “knows” about disability awareness days—and disability in general. Johnson introduces a largely unknown, but not new, way of thinking about disability awareness. Her ideas are not the result of a mere “gut feeling.” In Disability Awareness, Johnson looks to civil rights movements in the past, research from universities, and insight from disability activists to shed light on disability, awareness of it, and how disability awareness events should be approached to achieve optimal results.

Johnson bases much, if not all, of her ideas on the social model of disability. Since I entered the disability blogosphere just two and a half months ago in June 2008, I have been trying to understand the social model of disability as opposed to the medical model.

The social model divides the term “disability” into two parts. There’s the impairment, which is the actual blindness, muscle weakness, paralysis, disease, or other loss of function. Then there’s the disability, which is the extent to which the person with the impairment is “disabled” due to society’s failure to accommodate him or her (e.g., no ramp onto a sidewalk). To better understand this idea, let’s look at a real-life example.

Before McCool Hall, a building on campus, was renovated and expanded, I had one completely accessible entrance. There was a level, automatic-by-motion-sensor door in the back of the building. Freeze. My impairment is my Spinal Muscular Atrophy. My disability was the fact that I could not enter in the front of the building because the fully accessible entrance was in the back of the building. Continue.

McCool Hall underwent renovation and expansion. The building expansion resulted in the once-accessible entrance being covered up by the add-on, which itself did not have an accessible entrance. In the days right after the building reopened for the new semester, there was no accessible entrance. I missed my first class. Freeze. My impairment? Still the same. My disability, however, had changed for the worse—I was not able to attend class because there were no accessible entrances to the building. While a handful of accessibility concerns remains, McCool is now more accessible (at least to people using wheelchairs) as it includes three accessible entrances.

Considering this social model of disability, Johnson helps the reader clarify and understand the goal of a disability awareness day. She provides tips on how to get the intended message to the target audience while avoiding any “unintended consequences.”

“Disability Awareness—Do It Right!” is a must-read for anyone involved in planning an effective disability awareness day that focuses on change. Thank you Mary Johnson. Thank you.