It is a fact universally acknowledged that the world is burdened with extensive and pervasive social inequalities, most of which serve to target the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society. As a result, persons in minority groups have been the recipients of countless forms of maltreatment and have been required to endure nearly constant reminders that their identity has been marginalized into near oblivion in modern social spheres. They have been relentlessly confronted with acts symbolizing palpable discrimination, stigmatization, and prejudice.
The malignant presence of such abominable inequality in a democratic and free country such as the United States of America disturbs me to my core. Numerous times I have been confronted with both literal and metaphorical evidence of society’s inequalities and numerous times I find myself asking how this information can be true when we’re told that we live in such an advanced society. Despite this message of increasing growth and awareness, we face (and sometimes even encourage) issues of discrimination towards factions of its’ own people that cannot be described as anything more than archaic and shameful.
America was founded on the principles of democracy and freedom and while it may be true that some of this country’s people are indeed freer than most, we must bear in mind that this isn’t the case for everyone.
In recent years, social science has attempted to research, study, and explore the experiences of minority group members, which is an appropriate and effective use for academic work, specifically in areas that avidly pursue social justice, such as sociology. However, I have seen a startling lack of knowledge and representation in reference to a significantly large minority group: people with disabilities.
The World Health Organization defines disability as being any condition or impairment of the body or mind that inhibits the participation in, or performance of, certain activities. Contrary to their marginalized minority group status, people with a disability are quite common; it was estimated that over 61 million adults in the United States were living with a disability in 2020, which is the equivalent of one in four people or 26 percent, (CDC, “Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic,” 2020). Indeed, this population is projected to grow in the future with the increasing ages and life expectancies of the general population.
It appears that there is a massive disconnect regarding these people with disabilities. Many will acknowledge that they do comprise a minority group, but this group has received little in the ways of recognition or awareness of the past, present, and future wrongs committed against them. It seems that the masses fail to realize that they may also join this group in the coming years, whether by aging into it or accidentally gaining membership through an injury.
It’s not possible to recount all of society’s transgressions against people with disabilities, so this writing will not even attempt to detail those; it’s far beyond the scope of this work to tackle so much. Besides that, this article is written from my own personal perspective and viewpoint; it is not representative of all people (with disabilities) nor does this comprise the extent of their issues. In short, please don’t take what I have to say here and generalize it to all.
I have struggled to come up with any other identifier to reference this community, aside from the common label of ‘disabled people.’ Over time, my disgust for this label has progressed. While I do not consider myself to be unaware, inwardly, I tend to shy away from these words for several reasons. First of all, the prefix ‘dis-‘ generally means ‘not.’ When combined with abled, it literally becomes a way to refer to a person as ‘not abled,’ which I know advocates an inference that I find to be very offensive.
Yes, there are some things my body won’t allow me to do, but I would consider myself to be far from a helpless person that isn’t capable as a whole, simply because I have limits. Technically, everyone has their own limits, including individuals whose bodies are more or less intact; however, only some people are given the label of ‘disabled’, inferring that they’re helpless in some way. I could go on and on about this, but doing so wouldn’t fulfill the purpose of this article, so I will end this line of thought here.
The way I have chosen to refer to people with disabilities is ‘people with impairments.’ Although I don’t particularly enjoy this phrase either because it adds an identifier that indicates that such people should be regarded as different from other people, I do find it to be more accurate to think of these handicaps impairing one’s function, not rendering them unable. For the sake and ease of this writing, that’s what terminology I’ll use for the time being.
Some very troublesome things have come to my attention about how society tends to regard people with disabilities and so many negative issues that this population has to deal with are due to the prevalence of these perceptions.
Even in academic literature, people with impairments, particularly those with visible physical impairments, are often regarded as deviant on two counts: 1) “violations of aesthetic norms,” and 2) “physical incapacity,” (Inderbitzin et al., “Physical Deviance and Appearance: Ideals of Beauty, Self-Harm, and Body Modification” Chapter 2: The Diversity of Deviance, 2019; Goode, 2005).
I find that both of these counts are rather offensive to people with impairments and to be emblematic of the precise attitudes that need to be changed. Allow me to elaborate.
Regarding the first count on which people with impairments are found to be deviant (“violations of aesthetic norms “), this particular statement is not altogether untrue, as these persons do appear and may function in different ways than the majority culture has become accustomed to. Looking and doing things differently isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, in some cases, the reverse may be true!
As we now know from reviewing America’s history, what is at one time the ‘norms’ society respects and lives by aren’t always morally correct and may even be viewed later as egregious wrongs. Therefore, going along with that assumption, deviating from the norms of society could not only be the morally responsible and correct thing to do, but could also serve to enhance one’s sense of identity and individuality.
Deviance is simply to deviate from society’s established norms (whether those norms are right or wrong); however, this is not the view of the general public. When the layperson thinks of deviance, the image of a criminal offender or delinquent is often conjured up, despite these not being the only occurrences of deviance. Just because some deviants commit crimes and are caught does not mean that all of the people categorized this way do.
Furthermore, it is then a ridiculous notion that someone can judge everyone who looks different as having visible intrinsic character flaws. To do so would be to ‘judge a book by its’ cover’ and discounts the entirety of the ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ argument. It also is at the root of extremely damaging stereotypes and stigmas. If you really think about it, the word ‘extraordinary’ describes someone who is out of the ordinary or deviates from society’s norms in some way. Making one’s self conform to the standards of others is depriving the self of the opportunity to be extraordinary – whether extraordinarily good or bad.
Regarding the second count (“physical incapacity”), I view this the same way as I view the word ‘disabled’ (as mentioned above). When we dissect the word ‘incapacity,’ we are left with ‘incapable.’ People that suffer from impaired functioning in one or more areas are not incapable as a whole; thinking that way would be to encourage thinking of things on a binary (either/or) level.
Therefore, of the two outlined deviant criteria, only a portion of the first count may be true in actuality. Unfortunately, this is not the way that the majority of society have come to see people with impairments. As a result of being given this ‘incapable’ label, these individuals’ mental and physical health suffers.
Of the many areas in which people with impairments suffer, an area of significant concern (or should be) is mental health. According to the CDC, people with disabilities are nearly five times more likely to report mental distress compared to people without, (CDC, “The Mental Health of People with Disabilities,” 2020); a fact that alone holds many discouraging implications for their experiences of quality of life. It is true that this then encompasses millions of people coping with mental distress, ranging from mild to severe. It makes me wonder at the rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses that plague this population.
As people with impairments may be somewhat more susceptible to ailments of various sorts, high levels of mental distress have the potential to require such afflicted individuals to receive medical, psychiatric, or therapeutic care. Attaining appropriate care and attention costs money; money that people with impairments may not have, due to unemployment and underemployment.
Social Security payments are not enough to live on when they’re all of the income that a person has coming in. This results in people having to merely ‘deal’ with their illness, regardless of how much it further impairs their levels of functioning. This is a severe inequality and an unnecessary one that the modern world perpetuates.
Society should protect the innocent and the vulnerable. I ask you, what’s more innocent than a person who was given a body that doesn’t always work as a whole (whether through birth or injury) and yet is determined to contribute meaningfully to society? Who is more vulnerable than one who has been more or less victimized by nature in some way?
Considering this innocent and vulnerable status, the assumption of deviance is not inherently accurate. One is often deemed to be deviant when they commit an act that violates the norms or laws of society; yet people with impairments apparently do not have to do anything to earn this label. Though this may not be true, deviants are regarded as the troublemakers of our society for the unrelenting defiance to conform. Deviant behavior can be positive or negative; however, impaired peoples should not be categorized into either from the start.
We are told that people are innocent until proven guilty, but the fact is that this is not a sentiment all of society embraces. Relating to deviant behavior, this means that all are non-deviant until they do something that proves them to be deviant; that we must assume non-deviancy until we have irrefutable proof that the individual behaves deviantly. However, in accordance with the counts of deviance outlined previously, people with impairments don’t have to do anything at all to be perceived as deviant. By these counts of deviance, these persons do not have to be anything but true to themselves; they don’t need to deviate in any other way or behave outside of the guidelines for what others believe is acceptable. No matter what these people do or where they go, they will never escape the ‘deviant’ label.
Not only is this not morally right, adherence to this belief has three very harmful implications. One operates under the assumption that people with impairments exist to be everyone else’s source of inspiration and that everything this person does is an act of defiance worthy of attention. The second is that the people with impairments are deserving of this label that we know often results in poor treatment and is highly unlikely to be escapable. The third implies that we do not know whether such persons are deviant or not because there is a lack of people asking the question of ‘why?’ so we just say they are. This article is attempting to bring more awareness to this important question.
Please consider yourself: are people with impairments ‘deviant’? Because they are different and deviate from society’s norms, would it be accurate to say that this population is ‘abnormal’? Norms represent what is good and acceptable to the larger social sphere, so therefore to be a moral person of character, being abnormal is bad, right?
Wrong. To assume that normality and conformity is inherently good is to assert that only what is good and just is popular. As we all know, that is not true. Our history of trends and tragedies tell us this.
For example, it was considered to be ‘normal’ for a wealthy family to own slaves at one time in history. It was a societal norm of the time and yet we now know that it was terribly morally wrong. In this same fashion, modern times have brought on a whole slew of new problems, many of which arise from the damage caused by what our culture views as norms. If you think deeply about it, many social problems relate to the current norms of society, whether they’re implied or explicit.
Of the extensive forms of injustice and social problems that have been identified throughout the years, a famous one was described by Robert Merton in his seminal article titled “Social Structure and Anomie” published in 1938. In his article, anomie is defined as a “societal condition in which norms break down and there is little moral guidance for individuals,” (Cargan & Ballantine, “Social Structure and Anomie” by Robert K. Merton, 2003). Originally inspired by sociologist Emile Durkheim’s work on the topic, Merton elaborated on this state of normlessness, specifically to how anomie may result when the relationship that exists between cultural goals and the institutionalized means to achieve them is significantly flawed. He identified a total of five adaptions to anomie or cultural strain, which are (1) conformity, (2) innovation, (3) ritualism, (4) retreatism, and (5) rebellion, respectively.
The first type of adaption (conformity) is the most common adaption, is featured fairly routinely in society, and is what some might call “the path of least resistance,”. Conformists have embraced the larger cultural goals and standards of success in society and have entered into institutions or set about attaining acceptable institutionalized means in order to achieve them. College students are often given as an example because they are metaphorically ‘jumping through the hoops’ that society has deemed acceptable to attain wealth, power, and/or fulfillment.
Regarding the second form (innovation), people hold and have accepted cultural goals and standards for success, but attempt to attain them through illegitimate means. Examples of such innovators are “robbers, thieves, drug dealers, embezzlers, and high-priced call girls,” (Inderbitzin et al., “Merton’s Adaptations to Anomie” Chapter 4: Anomie/Strain Theory, 2019). Corresponding from the examples given, one could argue that this may be extended to potentially include human traffickers, smugglers, poachers, addicts, substance users and abusers, pimps, pornographers, and prostitutes.
In reference to the third form of ritualism, people reject the society’s cultural goals for achievement, yet continue operating through and making use of institutions or institutionalized means. Inderbitzen, Bates, and Gainey (“Merton’s Adaptations to Anomie” Chapter 4: Anomie/Strain Theory, 2019) specify that ritualists may take the forms of dedication that will never be promoted to or advanced to management positions.
The fourth is an adaption through the process or retreatism. Retreatists reject cultural goals and standards, while also rejecting acceptable institutionalized means to achieve. I think of these people as being prominently in retreat (such as a battle retreat) or recoiling from societal engagement; they are withdrawing from society and taking themselves out of the equation entirely.
Lastly, Merton identifies the fifth and final adaption to anomie and cultural strain as rebellion. Rebels are those who are extremely deviant in nature. These people not only reject cultural goals and standards for attainment, but outrightly oppose them; they seek to overthrow this system and replace it with goals that are more appropriate to them. In order to carve out this new path, rebels will use any means necessary, whether these are institutionalized or not, legitimate or not, or acceptable or unacceptable to society, to reach their newly established goals.
In theory, these perspectives may seem to be very fitting for a field dedicated to social justice, such as sociology; however, they are not without critiques. A major critique that I have raised can be illustrated by being put in the form of a question: where and how does this account for people with impairments? If we were to assume that Merton’s five adaptions to anomie are indeed the only ways for individuals and groups to avoid confusing levels of normlessness, how are these people destined to feel anything but confused about their place in society?
These individuals are not accounted for according to Merton’s typology. Although this oversight may be understood from a perspective originally put forth by a functionalist thinker, I do not think it would be advantageous for society to continue along this line of thinking in this modern age. While it may have seemed unnecessary at the time to expend efforts of inclusion and diversity, specifically for diversity of ability, that time has come and gone.
In today’s modern world, we cannot afford to maintain such an exclusionary view. Besides the fact that traditional models relegate people with impairments to near non-existent status, ignoring the existence of such individuals is the opposite of effective or functional for society. By disregarding these people, we disregard their fundamental human right to leading a life of quality.
When proper attention is not devoted to the quality of lives that people with impairments lead and we metaphorically wash our hands of matters concerning them, we deprive these people of the tools and accommodations that are necessary for them to function well in society at large.
As a person with physical impairments, I want to do what I can for myself, even if doing so may be difficult and requires considerable effort. Yes, I do need assistance with some activities that nature has seen fit to complicate for me, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned all cultural goals that I had as a nondisabled child; however, that does affect the means I possess and the needed provision for acceptable institutional means through which to achieve these goals.
By the laws of nature, my present situation and physical abilities make the conventional path of conformity somewhat unrealistic. My cultural goals remain the same as they ever were, but the means through which I can achieve them are not there. My impairments dictate that I require some assistance to live within the barriers of a world that is largely (and disproportionately) oriented for completely able-bodied people; unfortunately, I have found that much of this support is not conventionally allowed in modern society.
As I do have physical impairments and therefore am not what you might call ‘able-bodied,’ conformity as stated by the Merton typology is not an option available to me. This adaption emphasizes the presence of cultural goals (since I still hold them, they are present) and institutional means (which are not accessible to me). Therefore, to be a true conformist, I must always have internalized cultural goals and take advantage of acceptable institutionalized means as they are available: while I do indeed enjoy constant access to the cultural goals, I do not enjoy frequent access to the institutionalized means. Ergo, I am not a conformist by definition.
I have given a lot of thought as to whether or not I could be considered an innovator and I am rather conflicted as to what the answer to that could be. On the one hand, a somewhat inaccessible society requires that all people with impairments become their own innovators – to become advocates for themselves and to make paths where there generally have been none – meaning that a certain amount of innovation is necessary on the part of persons with impairments. But being regarded as and carrying the label of ‘innovator’ places such labelled persons under quite a lot of pressure to achieve. Innovators may be asked to maintain unrealistically high standards for involvement (involvement to an unrealistic extent, given that we live in a society where all avenues are not accessible to people with impairments, one that often asks them to withdraw and to reside quietly on the dark outskirts), leading to the holding of high expectations for them. By this reasoning, innovation is not necessarily a fitting adaptation for people with impairments either.
Additionally, we must ask ourselves if innovation itself could even really be considered deviance. According to an introductory social work textbook, students are encouraged to adopt practices of innovation in order to affect an empowerment approach. Here, innovation is defined as “the identification, development, and application of new ideas,” (Zastrow & Hessenauer, 2022). The text goes on to mention that this involves a social worker using their sense of creativity and knowledge of existing resources to satisfy the unique needs of consumers and clients. It is further clarified that such innovation may take the form of adaptive assistive technologies. According to this definition, this is something expected of service professionals and may not be considered a form of deviance in any way.
Considering the third adaption of ritualism, people with impairments have many identities – they are not defined by their handicapped status, regardless of the fact that this often becomes a master status. Some people may internalize the goals of society and some may not; however, when faced with sometimes overwhelming issues of accessibility, people with impairments may not be given the luxury of participating in the system, let alone merely existing or operating within it. Ritualism, in this sense, tends to not even be an option for these minorities.
To this end, I find that my personal experience becomes relevant. During the course of my life as a young adult with physical impairments, I have witnessed many issues of exclusion and inaccessibility firsthand and, much like the statement above, found that engaging in ritualism was never an option for me, not just because of my personality, but also because the very nature of the social structure of society does not allow for people with impairments to behave in this way. In order to function productively and effectively in a culture that regularly privileges the completely able-bodied, one with impairments is often asked to transcend all manners of accessibility issues and barriers; this environment requires the utmost effort to attain opportunity and discourages anything less (i.e. ritualism).
Regarding Merton’s fourth adaption to anomie, termed retreatism, I do not find that people with impairments fit this form either. Perhaps prominently illustrated by the actions of adventurer Christopher Johnson McCandleless who fled modern life to live a natural and minimalist lifestyle in the Alaskan wilderness, free from electricity or running water. Like McCanddleless, “retreatists completely stop participating in from society…[they] reject all means and goals of society,” (Conley, 2020).
Finally, regarding the final type identified by Merton – rebellion, we must refrain from making assumptions, especially when it comes to important social matters, like people; this is true for all, particularly those that the public has adopted stereotypes of. This includes people with impairments. Therefore, it would not be wise for society to presume whether an individual, no matter their degree or extent of ability, will or will not find validity in the traditional goals of our culture.
Unfortunately, society’s inaccessible nature leaves little room to question what exactly the goals of people with impairments actually are. Until we can guarantee equal access for all, we cannot make accurate projections of how many such people reject both goals, means, and search to establish new ones.
Surely, I cannot be the only person with impairments who is flabbergasted by the extremes of anomie facing this minority population. It is crucial for the future of our society and social justice in general that we consider the experiences of minority groups, particularly those of people with impairments.
- Cargan, L., & Ballantine, J. H. (2003). “Social Structure and Anomie” by Robert K. Merton. In Sociological Footprints: Introductory Readings in Sociology (9th ed., p. 368). Thomson/Wadsworth.
- CDC. (2020). “Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic,”. CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html.
- CDC. (2020, November 30). The Mental Health of People with Disabilities. CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/features/mental-health-for-all.html.
- Conley, D. (2020). “Social Forces and Deviance” of ‘Functionalist Approaches to Deviance and Social Control’ in Chapter 6: Social Control and Deviance. In You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist (7th ed., p. 219). essay, W.W. Norton.
- Goode, E. (2005). Deviant Behavior (7th ed.). Pearson Education.
- Inderbitzin, M. L., Bates, K. A., & Gainey, R. R. (2019). “Physical Deviance and Appearance: Ideals of Beauty, Self-Harm, and Body Modification” Chapter 2: The Diversity of Deviance. In Perspectives on Deviance and Social Control (2nd ed., p. 24). SAGE Publications, Inc.
- Inderbitzin, M. L., Bates, K. A., & Gainey, R. R. (2019). “Merton’s Adaptations to Anomie” Chapter 4: Anomie/Strain Theory. In Perspectives on Deviance and Social Control (2nd ed., p. 77). SAGE Publications, Inc.
- Zastrow, C., & Hessenauer, S. L. (2022). Empowerment Series: Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare: Empowering People (13th ed., p. 441). Cengage Learning US. https://reader.yuzu.com/books/9780357623480.