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Alternative views of empowerment: social services and civil rights.

In recent years, important social changes, spearheaded by the increasing influence of the disability rights movement, have promoted a growing search for an alternative to the "functional limitations" paradigm that has traditionally dominated research and practice concerning disability. According to this model, the principal difficulties associated with disability resulted from the loss of some physical or occupational capability; and the major solutions to these problems involved efforts to improve physical and vocational capacities. From this viewpoint, disability resided exclusively within the individual; and emphasis was centered on a clinical assessment of a person's remaining skills. Little thought or interest was devoted to external restrictions in the individual's social and work environment

Emener's empowerment model represents a significant attempt to progress beyond the confines of this traditional approach. By presenting a holistic perspective that encompasses the rehabilitation system, rehabilitation professionals, and families as well as the person with a disability, he has taken a major step toward focusing attention on broader issues affecting the employment and other opportunities available to Americans with disabilities. Certainly, there is much to be praised in a philosophy that seeks to establish "the quality of life and ... the happiness ... of each individual client" instead of "closures" as the standard for evaluating the succes of rehabilitation services. Despite this expanded orientation, however, his viewpoint is restricted by the tendency to assess the role of people with disabilities primarily as rehabilitation clients or consumers rather than as citizens. Emener does not confront the question of discrimination directly. His concept of empowerment is limited by the failure to propose a specific means of combatting the aversive attitudes that have frequently prevented persons with disabilities from securing jobs and other crucial sources of satisfaction in life. In order to appraise the strengths and weaknesses of Emener's philosophy, therefore, it is necessary to contrast this understanding of empowerment with another major model of disability that seems to imply an even more extensive role for rehabilitation professionals.

Perhaps the principal paradigm that has emerged in prior research on disability as an alternative to the "functional-limitations" orientation is the "minority-group" model. From the latter perspective, the major problems confronting citizens with disabilities are essentially similar to the difficulties of disadvantaged groups that have encountered discrimination on the basis of physical attributes such as race or ethnicity, gender, and age. Americans with disabilities not only have one of the highest rates of unemployment and welfare dependency in the country, but they also have been subjugated by rigid barriers of segregation in education, transportation, housing, and public accommodations. Probably the primary distinction between the disabled minority and comparable segments of the population is that the other disadvantaged groups have finally begun to refute assumptions about biological inferiority after centuries of struggle. If disability is viewed as a possible source of stigma and attitudinal aversion rather than as a functional limitation, the strivings of persons with disabilities to achieve equal social and employment opportunities fundamentally rests upon the implementation of their legal and constitution rights as well as upon the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs. As a result, civil rights instead of social services becomes the natural foundation for a joint effort by rehabilitation systems, professionals, families, and disabled citizens to improve their status in society.

The "minority-group" model also is based on a new and expanded understanding of disability. Whereas the "functional-limitations" paradigm was based both on a medical interpretation that stressed physical inabilities or limitations and on an economic view that emphasized vocational restrictions, the "minority-group" approach is founded on a socio-political definition that views disability as the product of the interaction between individuals and the environment. Thus, disability is not a personal defect or deficiency. On the contrary, it may be primarily the product of a disabling environment. By shifting the focus of their difficulties from internal to exterior characteristics, this perspective has at least two important implications for research and practice regarding the problems facing women and men with disabilities.

Initially, the socio-political definition focuses renewed attention on public attitudes as the most critical aspect of the environment surrounding people with disabilities. In fact,the "minority-group" paradigm also seems to be supported by three major postulates: first, that aversive attitudes are the basic source of the barriers encountered by persons with disabilities; second, that all aspects of the environment are shaped or molded by public policy; and third, that public policy is a reflection of widespread social attitudes. Hence, the ubiquitous obstacles confronted by citizens with disabilities cannot be considered purely accidental or coincidental; instead, they may be viewed as outcomes of the conscious or unconscious sentiments of the dominant nondisabled majority. A thorough understanding of the implications of this argument might eventually allow the courts to elevate persons with disabilities to the status of a "suspect class" deserving of "strict scrutiny" to determine whether legal distinctions based on disability are permissible within the meaning of the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, the socio-political definition provides the basis for the creation of a new sense of identity among women and men with disabilities. In the past, many individuals with disabilities have been reluctant to identify with, or to behave politically on the basis of, their most prominent personal characteristic because of the attitudinal aversion and the assumptions of physical inferiority associated with disability. By refocusing attention from internal to external features, they may be able to escape the stigma that has previously inhibited the formation of an identifiable constituency of 34 or more million disabled adults in the American electorate. The quest to translate formerly devalued attributes into positive sources of dignity and pride has been a significant facet of the effort by other social and political movements to combat discrimination based on race or ethnicity, gender, and age. This route to empowerment entails more than self-management skills and a healthy self-concept; it requires personal identification with the characteristic that has conventionally been branded as the primary source of a person's difficulties as part of a continuous struggle to expand the meaning of equal rights in modern society. But the potential benefits to be gained from involvement in this movement may eventually exceed the gains to be derived from other approaches.

The "minority-group" perspective seems to reflect several advantages that are not implicit in Emener's philosophy of empowerment. By focusing on the collective interests and aspirations of people with disabilities, the "minority-group" paradigm offsets the individualistic and clinical bias of the "functional-limitations" model. For many persons with disabilities independence is not the "sine qua non to freedom." Numerous adults with disabilities have mastered the skills necessary for everyday living and even gained employment only to discover that their most endemic problem is social isolation. Shunned and segregated by aversive attitudes, they are searching for a sense of community based on common experiences and objectives to sustain supportive networks and relationships. The loss of control over their lives is produced less by the lack of functional abilities than by the rejection they encounter from the nondisabled majority. To counteract this sense of powerlessness, some of them may be tempted to embrace a separatist philosophy that might be disturbing to portions of the nondisabled population. But this may be a necessary phase in a continuing social and political struggle to expand the meaning of civil rights that could be more rewarding for citizens with disabilities than professional intervention or personal adjustment.

From the perspective of the disability rights movement, empowerment also is not simply a mind-set. The pursuit of social change often requires more than a healthy psychological outlook; it usually involves competition for tangible resources. The members of a disadvantaged group may not be successful in gaining increased political power merely because they feel empowered; they commonly need significant economic and political support as well. The task of reducing unemployment among workers with disabilities is likely to impose costs on other sectors of the population. As a result, rehabilitation professionals and others interested in achieving this goal might be called upon to provide more than counseling and vocational advice to citizens with disabilities.

Perhaps even more importantly, empowerment is not a positive-sum game. Ideally, the power of rehabilitation systems, professionals, families, and clients should expand "simultaneously and continually," In fact, however, an increase in the power of all four elements not only might be resisted by other groups in society, but it also is apt to produce conflict between each of these areas. In particular, rehabilitation professionals need to be sensitive to the danger that gains in their own influence and in the power of the system in which they operate do not occur at the expense of workers with disabilities. All four components of rehabilitation service delivery share the common objective of securing the complete integration of persons with disabilities into the labour force. But the support that citizens with disabilities provide for rehabilitation systems and professionals must depend upon the effectiveness of their activities. If expansion of the legal rights of disabled persons should prove to be more successful in extending their employment opportunities than social services, they may be expected to reduce their support for rehabilitation programs unless these systems and professionals are willing to redefine their duties and responsibilities.

The basic problem with Emener's philosophy of empowerment is that it leaves the major principles and content of the discipline of rehabilitation counseling relatively undisturbed. By contrast, the principal tenets of the "minority-group" model seem to call for a significant expansion in the training and roles of rehabilitation professionals. Emener has made an important contribution by suggesting a paradigm that augments the essentially clinical and individualistic orientation of the medical model and of prior economic approaches to the study of disability. But the implications of the "minority-group model" appear to indicate the potential for an innovative and exciting change in the mandate of rehabilitation systems and professionals.

Initially, there is need for a significant revision of the curriculum of rehabilitation counseling. Many university programs seem to devote about one-third of their content to medical information, testing, and counseling, respectively, with a small addition component focusing on the "socio-psychological aspects of disability." Students preparing for a career as rehabilitation professionals must be exposed to classes on the lived experience of people with disabilities, attitudes toward disability, stigma and discrimination, the disability rights movement, and laws and public policies affecting citizens with disabilities. A broad and rich literature has already developed on all of these subjects, but it seldom has been included in courses in rehabilitation counseling.

In addition, rehabilitation professionals need to expand their own job descriptions to include the tasks of monitoring civil rights violations. A series of historic laws including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, P.L. 94-142, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act have implicitly or explicitly identified discrimination as the major barrier to the employment opportunities of disabled Americans. This Legislation, and especially the somewhat ambiguous phrases such as "reasonable accommodations" and "undue hardship" in the ADA, are likely to spawn an enormous amount of litigation. Unless rehabilitation professionals are prepared to play an active part in these controversies, they may face the risk of finding themselves consigned to a marginal position in employment policies regarding disability.

Finally, rehabilitation systems, professionals, and families, perhaps in cooperation with the independent living movement, might appropriately become involved in efforts to reduce the social isolation of women and men with disabilities. Many adults with disabilities have found that independence and autonomy are not sufficient to provide satisfaction in their lives. It could be time to move beyond the concept of independence and to promote the full integration of disabled individuals into the life of the community. Part of this process may entail efforts to assist people with disabilities to develop a positive sense of identity as disabled persons, to act politically on the basis of that identity, and to use the skills that they have acquired from their experience with disability, such as devising ad hoc solutions to everyday problems, as an asset in securing employment and in their personal lives.

Persons newly disabled often are called upon to answer the two most difficult metaphysical questions that can be posed to any human being, namely, Why? and Why me? Answers to these queries undoubtedly may vary. But there appear to be at least two universals in the experience of people with disabilities. The first is that acquiring a disability extends a person an opportunity to become a part of an historic movement to extend and expand the definition of civil rights. Participation in this struggle can provide significant satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in life. Second, having a disability generally means that individuals will view the world differently than they did before. The difference in their perspectives can yield insights that comprise a rich source of creativity. And this creativity can become the foundation for a sense of empowerment. Ironically, the empowerment of disabled citizens can derive from their involvement with their own disabilities rather than from a self-concept constructed apart from that experience. An emphasis on civil rights as well as social services, therefore, seems to offer a challenging prospect for the future growth of the influence and authority of disabled Americans.
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Article Details
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Author:Hahn, Harlan
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:An empowerment philosophy for rehabilitation in the 20th century.
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