Yesterday I was at a training session at work called “Mental Health First Aid.” It’s a Canada-wide initiative of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Its aim is to educate people with enough understanding of mental health issues to be able to administer “first aid” in an emergency or crisis situation, until a person can get professional help. They want to “increase mental health literacy” among Canadians.
One of the goals of this initiative is to address some of the stigma around mental health issues, which is a good thing. One of the ways they do this is to draw frequent analogies with physical health.
So far so good. But you need to know that this is a pre-packaged course that they train various people to deliver. There is a set format and curriculum, set powerpoint slides, a booklet, videos, activities and so forth. It would be astonishing if a course such as this would contain no problematic narratives even if its aims are, on the whole, positive.
Here’s what happened. One of the activities is they give each group (yes, there is group work) a baggie full of slips of paper. Each piece of paper has a “disability,” “ailment,” or “impairment” on it–quadriplegic, paraplegic, total loss of hearing, severe dementia, gingivitis, asthma, bipolar disorder, depression–you get the picture. The assignment is to rank them in terms of “most disabling” to “least disabling.”
Now maybe it’s because I’m a feminist philosopher who, though no expert on disability, has reflected on disability and oppression in recent years, but at a certain point it became clear to me that the task could not be done. I raised this with my group. My complaint is that an identified condition is only disabling if the surrounding environment is constructed in a way that excludes people with that condition.
For example, if stairs and counter tops and sinks and taps and toilets were all built for people who were ten feet tall, that would, for pretty much everyone, be a disabling environment. I thought of the deaf community and how at least some portion of that community takes serious issue with the framing of deafness as a disability. See this video.
One of my colleagues at the table agreed with me. She had just been at the Parapan Am Games the night before and has had some involvement coaching athletes (I’m sorry I don’t know exactly what). She agreed with me that some of the athletes would be offended to be thought of as disabled.
When I raised this with the facilitator, I honestly thought that we would be told that we had the “right answer,” namely, that the exercise really couldn’t be done. But instead, I was told that I was “overthinking” the exercise and couldn’t I just see that the point of the exercise is to get us to see that some mental conditions are just as disabling as some physical conditions.
The Parapan Am Games are going on in Toronto right now. The other night on CBC radio I heard them interviewing an athlete in who’d earned silver in the archery competition, Matt Stutzman from Iowa. Matt was born without arms and holds the bow with his foot. He has amazingly dextrous toes, which he’s used his whole life in ways that most of us never have (or even could). When the interviewer asked if he hoped to be the best para-archer in the world, he replied that he hoped to be the best archer, period, in the world. This is not a longshot dream. He currently holds the world record of the longest accurate shot in archery.
Read more about Matt Stutzman here.
The point is, the athletes competing in the Parapan Am Games and who will compete next year at the Paralympics in Rio are incredible athletes against whom, I dare say, most non-disabled people wouldn’t stand a chance.
It’s not that I think we should deny the idea of disability. Politically, that would be the wrong way to go. But it’s important, I’ve learned over the years, to recognize that we live in an extremely ableist world and that much of what we think of as disability is really just lack of support, lack of understanding, or a mismatch between the way the world is designed and the people in it. Think about how you would fare if communicating with the majority of people required telepathy or if navigating the world required sonar, like bats.
In this respect, I applaud the Mental Health First Aid course in its goal of reducing stigma and improving mental health literacy. Their very own materials include the idea that someone could have a mental health issue but, with the right kind of supports in place, not be affected by it. But they have some distance to go in achieving their goals. It’s true that we need to recognize that people with mental health issues need help, understanding, and supports.
But to play up the idea that disability is an inherent quality and that various conditions can be ranked in terms of most to least disabling perpetuates the wrong idea that disability inheres in individuals and has nothing (or very little) to do with context and environment.
Reflecting on the athleticism in the Parapan Am Games is a good way to see that some people with what many of us think of as disabilities are in fact extremely capable, even more so than non-disabled people. So to draw generalizations about the extent to which some feature of a person is disabling is just a mistake and doing so can contribute to, rather than help to eliminate, stigma about disability and, by analogy (as per the Mental Health First Aid Course), mental illness.