Disability, Social Integration and the Need for Community Education

There was an article last month in a psychiatric journal discussing the connectedness and social integration of people with psychiatric disabilities, emphasizing the need for services to consider this aspect of care and the skills needed by the folks who have psychiatric disabilities.

But what about community education?

Articles like this always get me thinking about the other side of the equation – the obstacles faced by people with disabilities when they try to integrate into society. One of our most vulnerable populations is people with mental health issues. Many of us with disabilities realize from real life experience that having social skills if you are a person with a disability isn’t the entire answer. If it was, the solution would be simpler. But we have to be careful not to discount the fact that social integration is dependent on the response of others – and society.

I remember years ago talking to a vet in a wheelchair at a tennis tournament. He had used a wheelchair for over 25 years and I was newly disabled. I explained to him how I was surprised at the social difficulties I was running into in some places and with some people and he replied “Well you’re going through shock right now.” He went on to explain that it wasn’t shock from being disabled, but shock from realizing that the reactions of some people were going to be so different because I was in a wheelchair. I tried to talk him out of that position but he wouldn’t budge.

Up to that point, I had blamed myself for every interaction that went wrong. Whenever I ran into a situation where I was excluded, I blamed myself. Then I read a few books about disability studies and began to understand better what that vet was trying to tell me that day – that barriers exist because of attitudes and other factors in our society.

I applaud and support those in the field of disability studies as they strive to introduce a consideration of the societal factors as related to disability into all academic fields. An article such as this , which discusses raising the expectations for integration of people with psychiatric disabilities, calls out for a discussion from those of us advocating for the rights of the disabled about the myriad of factors involved so that we can determine what needs the system can and should address. Some of the services do need to address the skill level of the person with the disability, but some of the services also need to address community education to create a more equal playing field for those who are de-institutionalized and about to enter our communities.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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