The Big Picture: What is “Disability Awareness” Encouraging People to See?

Hello, readers,

Yes, I know it’s not my usual blog posting day. Sometimes, ideas come in such a flurry, I have to rearrange my plans to give them all space here. So, idea number one. I want to ask a radical question. You guys should know by now, I love those. 🙂 Here it is: do we really need “disability awareness?”

For those of you who don’t know, March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. April is Autism Awareness Month. I don’t know of any other disabilities that get their own awareness months. That in itself raises questions–why those disabilities and not others? Of course, that could be because the prevalence of autism has increased. One in eighty-eight children will receive a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Additionally, cerebral palsy, according to the Center for Disease Control, is “the most common motor disability in children.” The CDC’s data indicates that as many as four children per 1,000 live births will be born with CP. Some statistics even say one in 323 kids.

So okay, maybe that answers one question. But no matter what disability you have, do you, as a person with a disability, need or want an “awareness month?” Do I, also as a PWD, need or want one? I know the answer depends on the individual. I also know there’s a strong case for both sides of this issue, so let’s examine both now.

Positive (Awareness is Good, Disability Awareness Months are Needed/Wanted)

On the positive side, one could argue that having an awareness period, be it a week, a month, whatever (for example, Special Education Awareness Week) is good, the same way that having a Black History Month or Women’s History Month is good. The argument there is that PWDs are in the minority. They have not been fairly represented in any sense, and so it’s beneficial that we as a largely TAB population have learned to do that, at least somewhat (we’ll get to that part). There’s also the argument that, because of disability awareness, the TAB population can become more educated about various disabilities and thus, might change some of their ideas about disabilities and their behavior around people who have them.

Furthermore, people might argue that awareness months are good because otherwise, PWDs aren’t noticed at all. Having a period dedicated to awareness of disabilities can encourage the person with a disability to open up about his or her experiences, positive and negative, and perhaps find some catharsis in that. Another positive might be that disability awareness can be used to debunk common myths about certain disabilities, raise interest in disability-related legislation, and bring together PWDs with their temporarily able-bodied peers. Finally, there’s the possibility that through a disability awareness campaign, people can learn more about the accomplishments of famous persons with disabilities, just like with black history or women’s history. Some notable examples: Louis Braille, Helen Keller, Temple Grandin.

Negative (Awareness is Bad/Disability Awareness is Not Needed or Wanted)

As often happens with other debatable issues, the negative side of this argument can be seen as turning the positive aspects around the other way. That is, the negative arguments might go something like this:

Disability Awareness Months, or other periods, can’t really be compared to Black History Month or Women’s History Month, for a lot of reasons.

  1. As discussed, there is not one period set aside for awareness of disability in general; specific disabilities get separate periods. That would be like us saying, “Okay, February is going to be Dark History Month, and March is going to be History Month for light-skinned blacks, and April is going to be Biracial History Month…” That sounds a little ridiculous, right? And some people wonder if that’s not what we’re doing when we designate one period for CP, one for autism, one for Down Syndrome, and so on.
  2. If you asked the average temporarily able-bodied person on the street, he or she would probably have to struggle to come up with more than two famous people with disabilities (Helen Keller is well-known, as is Louis Braille, but he is less so. Temple Grandin has become more well-known, but often not outside of autism spectrum circles. As to other famous people with disabilities, I’m even having trouble coming up with more). The sad truth is that disability still carries a stigma of “can’t,” “won’t,” and “never will,” and so some people have not accepted PWDs can be famous and accomplish great things. When this does happen, it’s sometimes used as inspiration discrimination, or only in certain venues (ex.: producers only allowing actors with disabilities to play characters that have the same disability. Now, sometimes this “works,” as with Chris Burke, an actor who has Down Syndrome. Still, it undermines that person’s wholeness and abilities. And often, those actors are placed in roles where their characters engage in stereotypical behavior).

The argument that “we need disability awareness so PWDs can be noticed”–well, that goes both ways. If you don’t notice someone until you’re told by the calendar to be aware of that person’s existence, what does that say about you and your society? And that goes for any minority, not just people with disabilities. That argument also applies to the theory that temporarily able-bodied people will be educated about disabilities and feel more favorable about inclusion if disability awareness exists. Yes, in a lot of cases, that might be true–or it might not. After all, if little Larry, who sat through twelve years of Black History Month in school, still uses racial slurs, he may have been educated, but he didn’t learn.

So, there you have a basic look at both sides of this issue. Again, one’s feelings about disability awareness periods are up to the individual, so I’m not going to make a judgment call. However, I am going to say this: when we deal with disability awareness, we all, including myself, need to take a look at what we’re asking the general population to be aware of, to really see. That is, are we encouraging each other to look at a given disability and say, “Oh, isn’t that terrible? I hope there’s a cure soon. It must be so hard to live like that.” Or are we encouraging people to look and say, “Wow. Look at what that person can do, with a disability, not in spite of it. I want to do the kinds of things she’s doing. I want to learn more about the disability he has so I can relate to him better and share with others what I have learned.” By the way, this goes for stuff like cancer awareness, as well. Yes, cancer is awful. Yes, disabilities can be awful, and a struggle. But that’s not where our focus should be.

Now, am I bashing people who react to disability awareness with hope for cures? No. I would love to have a cure for CP someday (see the December 2011 archives for more on that). But I would rather people go through Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month and see me, want to get to know me, rather than telling me how much they hope for a cure. I’m guessing other PWDs feel similarly.

Do we need disability awareness? I’m not sure. But we need human being awareness, and not just for a month–every day.



  1. Heather Von St. James · March 26, 2014

    Hi there! I have a quick question about awareness and was hoping you could email me when you have a free moment? Can’t wait to hear from you! Thanks! 🙂 xoxo


    • independencechick · March 26, 2014

      Hi, Heather. I like to keep the blog anonymous, and my actual email has my real name in it. But I would love to answer you. What is your question? 🙂

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