Animal Studies Bibliography

Bogdan, Robert and Steven J. Taylor. 1989. Relationships with severely disabled people: The social construction of humanness. Social Problems 36(2): 135-148.

Symbolic interactionism and labelling theory have focused on instances of rejection and exclusion, but interaction with a deviant may also result in acceptance. The relationship between people is defined by the participants, not determined by the presence of a deviant trait. Previous studies of the nondisabled people's treatment of the disabled have shown that the disabled are often treated as less than human, and, particularly in institutions, receive considerable abuse as a result. Qualitative observations of accepting relationships between severely disabled and nondisabled people, however, reveal another way this interaction may work out. Nondisabled people in these relationships recognized their disabled partners as human, as “one of us” regardless of their physical and behavioral differences. Bogdan & Taylor outline 4 ways in which the nondisabled construct their disabled partners as fully human. First, they attribute thinking and intelligence to the disabled person, often contrary to what they have been told by doctors about the person's abilities. They argue that the disabled person can think like anyone else but has a body that limits her/his ability to communicate those thoughts. They describe the meanings they find behind the disabled person's gestures, gestures that an outsider generally would not be able to understand as communication. Finally, they sometimes claim to know through intuition what their disabled partner is thinking, or they “took the role of the other” to figure out how the disabled person might feel. The conflict with doctor's diagnoses is justified by noting other diagnoses that the doctor got wrong, such as the disabled person's life expectancy or skill limits. Second, the nondisabled people describe their disabled partners as individuals, using descriptive adjectives and nicknames, avoiding clinical terms, describing the person's likes and dislikes (food, colors, music), attributing “normal” feelings and motives to the person's behavior and emotions, describing the person's life history (often in two parts: the abuses the person survived in institutions and then the person's improved happiness, skills, etc. after entering the current relationship), and creating a unique appearance for the person using clothes, hairstyles, makeup, and other gender signs to give the disabled person a more mainstream look than they had institutionally. Third, the nondisabled people viewed the disabled people as reciprocating members of the relationship, a quality crucial to relationship maintenance and stability. They viewed the disabled people as offering them companionship, introduction to new groups in the community, a feeling of specialness for knowing the disabled person best or for helping the person improve her/his life, or a new awareness that made them better people. Fourth, the nondisabled people defined a social place for the disabled person, both by defining the person as part of a social group (using inclusionary terms like family or ‘my son') and by including the person in daily life and activities. Inclusion in this primary group is the first step toward being included in the larger community group. As these nondisabled people's perspectives show, we should remember that stigma occurs through definition, not as a simple result of some condition, and definition can as easily result in acceptance as in exclusion.


Visit the Michigan State University Homepage Return to the Animal Studies Homepage