In the picture on the next page, we see Ola in a wheelchair on her first day at secondary school. Think about what is happening in the picture. Next, answer the following questions in your group and note your answers in this worksheet.
When I’m getting to know somebody new, the first questions are usually about the fact to what extent I am self-sufficient. So, they ask me about stuff they would not ask when getting to know someone who isn’t in a wheelchair. For example:
“How did you get to school in your wheelchair? It must have been difficult, right?”
Certainly, that’s not one of the first questions that you usually ask when getting to know someone. Rather, that’s what one asks in some specific situation; like when someone tells you that they don’t live here but in some nearby village or that their train didn’t come in the morning. It seems to me as if they are examining you with questions of this sort; as if they are examining my state of health. Due to the fact that I’m in a wheelchair, I am becoming a medical curiosity to them. It is as if I would not be able to talk to others and start new friendships because I cannot do the same things as them without problems. And because of my limited physical self-sufficiency, I cannot be an equal friend to them.
This is similar as to my hobbies. I go in for music very much, for example. But the fact that it is me who makes music draws attention. People often act as if I cannot do this adequately just because I am in a wheelchair. On the contrary, they put it in the context of my health and my treatment, and they ask me why don’t I get music therapy. So, what I do or who I am is perceived as the subject of treatment or medicine. But the fact to which extent I am physically self-sufficient doesn’t correspond, after all, to how I am able to decide for myself.
I don’t come across misunderstanding related merely to my relationships and hobbies but also related to my needs. Others often think, for example, that all of my needs concern medical care. But I also have plenty of other needs. It is difficult for me to talk about these other needs because people around me usually expect that I have only needs related to my medical condition. That’s why it is important for me to have somebody around me who hears out even my other problems and won’t perceive me as a medical issue.
We have just read a real story from Lora. Now, let us try to answer the following questions:
Ola’s story is about how people that use assistive devices — a wheelchair in this case — are primarily viewed through the lens of disability while participating in any activity. When at school, pursuing her hobbies or getting to know new people, others ask Ola questions emphasizing she is a wheelchair user:
“How did you get to the school in the wheelchair? It must have been hard, hasn’t it?“
We take it for granted that we ask wheelchair users these questions, but we would not ask a person without a wheelchair this kind of questions. However, due to these questions, Ola feels she is being perceived as “a medical curiosity”, which others are interested in only in the context of her disability. Ola’s story reveals the dynamics of the inner experience of a person who is in almost every moment of their existence primarily perceived as a wheelchair user. However, the life of this person is not merely defined by a given disability but by many other attributes.
This dynamics when Ola becomes a subject of medical care, similar as Tina in her story, is based on the medical model of disability. 1 In this perspective, disability is understood to be a subject to correction. With this comes the term medicalization, i.e. the understanding of various processes and states of the body in terms of medicine. This way, the medical framework is adopted for understanding any condition or issue of an ill person. 2 3
“So, what I do or who I am is perceived as a subject of treatment and medicine. But the fact to which extent I am physically self-sufficient doesn’t correspond, after all, to my ability to decide for myself.”
This approach is dominant in our society, and we are raised in it and socialized to it — that is why we conform to it and abide by it. In Ola’s case, who is reduced to her medical condition and through which she is perceived, these two approaches reach the absolute extreme, which is not, however, far from rare. Logically, this leaves its mark on her self-perception and hinders her personal development and self-realization.
“Others often think, for example, that all of my needs concern medical care. But I also have plenty of other needs. It is difficult for me to talk about these other needs because people around me usually expect that I have only needs related to my medical condition. That’s why I need to have somebody around me who hears out even my other problems and won’t see me as a medical issue.”
“The Disability Rights Commission — How to Use — The Social Model of Disability.” Wayback Machine, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20090127034752/http://220.127.116.11/sitearchive/DRC/citizenship/howtouse/socialmodel/index.html. ↩︎
Conrad, Peter. “Medicalization and Social Control.” Annual Reviews of Sociology, 1992. ↩︎
The term “medicalization” also includes the case when a bodily state or process is described in medical terms, although it initially was not an object of medicine. ↩︎