Historically, people living with disabilities in the United States were discriminated upon. Glowacki states that before the 18th century, disability was closely associated with witchcraft, demonic possession or sin (5). As a result, people with various disabilities were in most cases hidden from the public, ostracized and victimized (social exclusion) by members of society (Glowacki 5).
Culturally, having a child with a disability was a source of shame and ridicule in most American societies. Despite the significant changes and efforts directed towards the promotion of social inclusion of persons with disabilities, there still remain cultural and social barriers that dampen such efforts.
Retish and Raiter stated that culture played a pivotal role in determining societal attitudes towards given phenomena (130). The authors described attitude as “a learned predisposition to respond in a consistently favorably or unfavorable manner with respect to a given object” (131). From this definition, it is evident that attitudes affect the way people react to different circumstances.
As such, cultural beliefs influence how we behave or perceive people and event in our societies. Negative feelings harbored by some people regarding particular disabilities are to a large extent as a result of cultural barrier. Therefore, it could be argued that cultural barriers are the greatest obstacles to the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in society.
Research conducted by Heyne, Schleien and McAvoy indicated that fear of disabilities was among the major obstacles in the formation of relationships between individuals with and without disabilities (23). Glowacki states that culture has contributed to the tendency of some societies blaming individuals for their disabilities. In addition, stigmatization, stereotyping and pity have been cited as sources of sociocultural barriers affecting individuals living with disabilities.
Previous studies indicate that cultural values greatly influence how society views disabilities. According to Mcloughlin, Zhou, and Clark, Confucianism is the predominant philosophy behind the Chinese culture (274).
The authors assert that this philosophy classifies people into three intellectual groups starting from people with great wisdom, those with average intelligence and finally, those with little intelligence. While Confucianism encourages tolerance, obedience and courtesy, it has led to the discrimination of people based on their personality and merits.
Mcloughlin et al state that Confucianism encourages people to be determined and participants in the process of national building, while on the other hand, it has led to the development of an elitist system characterized by social segregation and stratification that ignores the needs and efforts of the people with disabilities.
Buddhism as a core aspect in the Chinese culture encourages people to accept themselves as they are. Such values inhibit the ability of people with disabilities to develop because they have to accept their role in society as a marginalized populace. In addition, Buddhists’ belief in Karma also influences how they view people with disabilities.
According to Hampton, Buddhists believe that bad actions attract bad consequences, while good actions are rewarded (41). As such people with disabilities are often viewed as a sign of their predecessors’ bad karma. Due to such cultural beliefs, persons with disabilities in such societies always question whether they are a burden to their families or whether they are a source of shame to the family.
In regard to American culture, stereotyping, prejudice and stigmatization have been cited as the greatest barriers to social inclusion of people with disabilities. Byrne defines stigmatization as “a sign of disgrace or discredit which sets a person apart from others” (65).
In most cases, stigma has led to situations where particular people in society are marginalized and excluded in various activities. In addition, McKeever reveals that stigma can prevent people with ability to participate in society, thereby leaving them dependent on others in society (1).
In addition, stigma leads to stereotyping based on misconception. At some point we are guilty of assuming that a mentally ill individual is aggressive or violent. While this is not always the case, such perceptions make it difficult for persons with disabilities to interact effectively with society.
Stigmatization has social and psychological effects on the victim’s quality of life. Nolan et al states that stigmatization lowers one’s self-esteem and self-efficacy. In addition, the authors assert that stigmatization leads to stress, anxiety, denial and antisocial behaviors among the people with disabilities (24). These issues make it difficult for people living with disabilities to become fully integrated into their societies. This makes them view themselves as beneficiaries in society rather than equal participants.
Similarly, due to stigmatization, stereotyping and prejudice towards disabilities, people living with disabilities are not given equal opportunity when it comes to education and employment. In most cases, physical disabilities have been associated with mental inabilities.
For example, there are instances whereby cripples are denied a desk job simply because employers assume that they are not fully qualified to handle the task. This is a classic example of how stigmatization, prejudice and stereotyping act as social barriers to people living with disabilities.
In an empirical study conducted by McCallion, Janicki, and Grant-Griffin in regard to parental perception to disabilities, the researchers found great disparities between the results recorded between African Americans, Chinese, Korean and Mexican participants. The results indicated that Chinese and Korean parents viewed disability as a source of shame in community and that parents from these cultural backgrounds were more likely to hide children with disabilities in order to avoid public ridicule (354).
Similarly, a study conducted by Zaromatidis et al on the attitude of selected Greeks and Greek-Americans towards people living with disabilities, the results showed that the latter had a positive attitude towards disabilities in comparison to their Greek counterparts (1191).
The results were attributed to societal constructs. Greek society is collectivist in nature. This means that Greeks place more emphasis on group membership and communal benefits. As such, people with disabilities are viewed as a source of shame and a threat to societal development.
On the other hand, Greek-Americans, have adopted the individualistic nature of the American society. As a result, they are more tolerant to disabilities. While the Greek society fails to acknowledge disability as a part of life, the American society makes an effort to embrace disability. This is a classic case of social exclusion versus social inclusion between these two samples.
In Mexico, cultural barriers are not as serious as social barriers. In a research conducted by Skivington, the researcher found out that the government in Mexico had to a large extent failed in the provision of services that benefit people living with disabilities (1).
While the Mexican government promised to consider the educational social, architectural and employment needs of people living with disabilities, literature reviewed in Skivington’s research indicated that for the past decade no concrete action had been taken in this regard (3). This is further supported by findings from a survey conducted by members of the Mexico Child Link organization.
The study indicated that a large percentage of Mexican street children suffer from various disabilities. In addition, due to lack of specialized care, parents often abandoned children with disabilities. This was attributed to the fact that such children were viewed as a burden and unproductive in a society riddled with poverty.
Other studies showed that children and adult with mental disabilities were mistreated and looked down upon in Mexican societies. According to Moreno, a visit to various mental institutions revealed clear signs of discrimination, lack of concern and mistreatment of patients within these institutions.
The author wrote that “Patients are tied to wheelchairs, walls of shelters and institutions are stained with feces, and pools of urine cover the floor, and children and adults often scream in agony and confusion” (Moreno 1).
In regard to the availability of educational opportunities, a study conducted by Aviles revealed that only 53 out of 457 teachers training institution gave licenses in special education. This would explain why 45,000 out of over one million teachers in Mexico are special educators (1). These examples reveal the sociocultural barriers experienced by people with disabilities in Mexico.
This paper set out to discuss the sociocultural barriers that affect people with disabilities. From the literature review presented herein, it has been articulated that cultural and social values, beliefs and practices affect how and why people perceive disabilities. Religion and societal structures have been identified as the major sources of cultural barriers. On the other hand, stigmatization, stereotyping and prejudice have been highlighted as the barriers to social inclusion of people with disabilities in society.
Results from various studies have been used to explore various aspects of the topic and to compare how similar barriers affect societal views on disabilities across different cultures. It has also been noted that while there are laws and regulations that seek to promote equality and fairness for people living with disabilities, there is need to create more awareness among the masses in order to foster attitudinal change regarding disabilities.
People living with disabilities should also strive to prove that they too can make a significant impact to society. Disabilities should not be used as an excuse to nonperformance, but should be accepted and capitalized on. This will ensure future societies accept the situation and treat people with disabilities as equal contributors to the development of the society.
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