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Robert’s Final Paper

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It’s All in Your Head? Psychology, Problems, and Progress

Disability theory, like any major theory, aims to rethink, revise, or even remove prevailing stereotypes, practices, and policies about people with disabilities. Many theorists have focused on physical disability, which is often more easily understood than cognitive disability – or at least more easily observed – by the nondisabled majority. For people with cognitive disabilities such as autism, however, the real lived existence and the theoretical conceptualization of cognitive disability is much more complicated. Facing social, cultural, and economic isolation; disabling representations; and rigid and biased diagnostic systems in psychology, people with cognitive disabilities can, however, find power and progress in self advocacy, institutional revisions, and progressive discussions.

Nowhere is the isolated and disempowered reality of cognitive disability more readily evident than in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The story’s nameless female narrator is married to John, a doctor. According to John, the narrator has “but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” and nothing more (Gilman). Within the story, Gilman critiques the medical model of disability through the nameless woman’s journal entries. One critique focuses on the often cold and un-empathetic mindset of clinicians. “John,” the narrator says, “does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason for me to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilman). Here we can see one of cognitive disability’s primary problems: while physical disability or illness is readily assessed by sight or some sort of physical or visual diagnostic, cognitive disability is difficult to visualize, assess, or even validate. Gilman’s narrator feels increasingly isolated and disempowered because, as she writes in her journal, “Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able…to dress and entertain, and order things” (Gilman).

Another critique of the medical model is that it rarely listens to the voices and wishes of patients. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” John tells his wife to take “phosphates or phosphites… and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise” and he also forbids her to do work until she is well (Gilman). Despite John’s prescriptions, the narrator does not improve. Rather, she finds John’s treatment to be ineffectual. She says, “Personally, I disagree with their [John and her brother’s] ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (Gilman). Ultimately, John ignores her requests. Ultimately, the narrator goes mad and John and the medical model fail. Here we can see – or, rather, hear – how cognitive disability can silence a person’s voice more severely than a physical vocal disability might.

Gilman’s story might not seem to be an effective means to power social, political, or theoretical change for people with cognitive disabilities. However, as Rosemarie Garland-Thompson proposes in her critical essay, “Disability and Representation,” narrative representations of disability – in our case, cognitive disability in “The Yellow Wallpaper” – are important because “the way we imagine disability through images and narratives determines the shape of our material world, the distribution of resources, our relationships with one another, and our sense of ourselves.” For Garland-Thompson, then, and for people with cognitive disabilities, disabled narratives and images drive progress in the real world.

One such example of progress is in the self advocacy of people like Ari Ne’eman and Amanda Baggs, who both have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Ne’eman, founder of ASAN, the Autism Self Advocacy Network, argues that autism and other cognitive disabilities are a natural form of human variation. This concept, neurodiversity, is a central part of ASAN’s mission to “advance the principles of the disability rights movement in the world of autism” (Autism). ASAN, in contrast to groups like Autism Speaks, supports education, self advocacy, and accommodation instead of only cures or medicalized treatments. Like many other advocacy groups, ASAN also seeks to overthrow prevailing stereotypes and inaccuracies surrounding autism. Ne’eman, in his essay, “Dueling Narratives,” argues that “the prevailing popular image of the autism spectrum” is “defined by family members of autistic children and medical professionals” (Ne’eman). These perspectives, according to Ne’eman, have “negatively impacted both parents and people on the spectrum” (Ne’eman). Returning to Garland-Thompson’s earlier argument, these “prevailing popular images” that Ne’eman criticizes have serious implications for people with disabilities and the nondisabled as well. Self advocacy and self representation, thankfully, are becoming increasingly common.

Amanda Baggs, the creator of several YouTube videos chronicling her ideas about disability and her life as an autistic person, is a prime example of self representation and self advocacy. Baggs argues in “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley – My Richness and Yours” that “autistic people are not a special kind of people set apart from all other people” because “oppression and injustice take depressingly similar shapes” (Baggs). Her point here is that people with autism, like people with cognitive disabilities or disabilities in general, face the same social and cultural hurdles as other disempowered groups. Using a colonial/post-colonial mindset, we might think of people with disabilities as living under the “rule” of nondisabled society. Disabled individuals have limited access to goods and services, diminished political power, and misrepresentation in media, as do subjects in a colonial environment.

What, then, created this unequal and arguably oppressive environment for people with disabilities, specifically people with cognitive disabilities? A lot of previous discussion has focused on a social or cultural root of disability stereotypes, disempowerment, and representation. There is, however, a much deeper origin. Much of the struggle and critical debate within disability theory can be traced to the basis of our conceptualization of ability/disability, which is psychological research. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-IV, provides the backbone for defining, diagnosing, and constructing cognitive and affective disabilities. The DSM itself is based on years of psychological research and statistical evaluations of cognitive functioning.

Reducing human beings to statistical figures, as research for the DSM does, is a complicated practice. Statistics can dehumanize people by reducing them to “normal distributions” with scores of their traits or behaviors falling within several “standard deviations” from the mean score. As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argue in “Cultural Locations of Disability,” for many years “disabled people have served as the relics or obscene curiosity disguised beneath the neutral veil of empirical inquiry” (193).  Statistical significance in this case can be a blessing for a researcher and a bombshell for a patient. However, research and statistics can be beneficial in that they preserve anonymity for research participants, control for bias, and provide an effective standardized method for defining, studying, and perhaps treating cognitive disabilities. Without statistical research and diagnostic manuals, treatment would not exist and it would be difficult to secure disability services or accommodations without an officially documented diagnosis.

Psychology itself, not just its research, has also had a long and morally problematic history. At one time hysteria was defined as a female disorder; the origin of hysteria is the Greek term for uterus. Gendered disorders and politically complicated ones, such as the now nonexistent diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental disorder, have not done much to benefit the image of psychology in the eyes of critical theorists. There has been and there is still an absence of a disability perspective within psychology. This could be explained by Mitchell and Snyder’s argument in “Cultural Locations of Disability,” that professions like psychology “have always imagined their commitment to disabled people as their primary value, and hearing that disabled people – particularly those in disability studies – do not necessarily share this sentiment often comes as a shock” (191-192).  Clinicians and researchers often lose sight of the humans they treat and study behind Mitchell and Snyder’s “neutral veil of empirical inquiry” (193).

There is, however, hope. To begin with, psychology has constantly evolved in response to critical evaluations and new theories.  For instance, homosexuality is no longer considered a mental disorder and the current DSM is under revision to reevaluate its definitions of several major disorders. The new DSM-V, according to its website, seeks to “develop criteria for diagnoses that not only reflect new advances in the science and conceptualization of mental disorders, but also reflect the needs of our patients” (DSM-5).  The American Psychological Association, or APA, has also sought to reduce bias in psychological publications. In the latest Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, there are new sections for researchers and clinicians such as “Be Sensitive to Labels” that provide advice on how to avoid “condescending…patronizing and offensive” terminology and how to utilize “people-first language” (76).

With the APA currently revising its standards for research, writing, and treatment, people with cognitive disabilities can take heart. While there are still many glaring inequalities imposed by lingering unfair research and clinical standards, socio-cultural isolation, and misrepresentation, the work done by disability theorists, self advocacy groups like ASAN, and the aforementioned APA revisions is helping to create a major power shift. People with cognitive disabilities and disabilities in general, are finding voices of their own through typical and alternative media and advocating an adjustment of current and unequal practices and policies.

Works Cited

American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington: APA, 2010. Print.

Autism Self Advocacy Network. ASAN. n.d. Web. 23 November 2010. <http://www.autisticadvocacy.org/modules/smartsection/category.php?categoryid=8>.

Baggs, Amanda. “Cultural Commentary: Up In The Clouds And Down In The Valley: My Richness And Yours.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30 (2010): n. pag. Web. 24 November 2010.

“DSM-5: The Future of Psychiatric Diagnosis.” American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Development. APA. n.d. Web. 23 November 2010. <http://www.dsm5.org/Pages/Default.aspx>.

Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. “Disability and Representation.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 120(2). PMLA. 2005. 522-527.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center. UVA. n.d. Web. 23 November 2010.

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. “Dueling Narratives: Neurotypical and Autistic Perspectives about the Autism Spectrum.” Dueling Narratives.

Ne’eman, Ari. “Dueling Narratives: Neurotypical and Autistic Perspectives About the Autism Spectrum.” The Society for Critical Exchange (2007): n. pag. Web. 23 November 2010.

Robert’s (In)formal Blog Post on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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Gilman’s imagery of the threatening yellow wallpaper reminded me of producer Guillermo del Torro’s latest film, El Orfanato (The Orphanage.)

(Guillermo del Torro produced the horror film, Pan’s Labyrinth.)

The first connection between the short story and the film was, of course, wallpaper. In the opening credits of the El Orphanato, the hands of very creepy children reach across the screen to rip chunks of blood red wall paper away to reveal darkness. At the end of the opening credits, the children’s arms reach out toward the audience. (Scary, no?)

More relevant to this course and this blog are the topics of disability, disfigurement, infantilization, and institutionalization. In El Orfanato, del Torro presents a horror story full of the ghosts of murdered orphans, one of whom was disfigured. The disfigured boy, Tomás, is hidden from the world. Even indoors and among his peers, he must wear a sack cloth painted with a clown’s face over his head. His ghost returns decades later when Laura, a former resident, buys the orphanage and moves in with her husband and son.

The orphanage itself is located by the sea in a very isolated and lonely area, much like the house in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is here that Laura’s son disappears, taken by the ghost children. The film plays off of the mysterious horror of Tomás’s disfigurement to shock and engage the audience. When his face is finally revealed in grainy home-video footage, the music and editing and initial shock make you jump.

Disability also comes into play after Laura breaks her leg and is confined to a wheelchair for several frightening nighttime haunting scenes. The film uses her relative immobility to heighten tension during these scenes: can Laura escape?!

Both Tomás’s disfigurement and Laura’s disability (after she recovers and leaves the wheelchair, she still has pain and limps slightly) are associated with the infantilized orphanage setting, the paternalistic indifference of Laura’s husband and local police force, and the otherwordly realm of ghosts and hauntings.

What implications result? Can you think of other instances in which disfigurement/disability are used/exploited by horror films/novels?

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/oXfHOY3CC0g" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Written by Robert

September 29th, 2010 at 12:31 am

Robert’s Formal Blog Post on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician, and — perhaps (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency — what is one to do?  My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. So I take phosphates or phosphites — whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?

In this passage, our unnamed female narrator confides to us the mute isolation of her suffering. That the narrator is nameless fits well with this dehumanizing theme; just as her husband does not validate her claims that she is sick, her existence and value as a human is not validated with a name. John, her husband and her doctor, fails to comprehend the true experience of her “nervous troubles.” He prescribes “phosphates or phosphites…and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise” and she is “absolutely forbidden to do work” (Section 1). Here is quite a good representation of the paternalistic medical model of disability; disability is something to be controlled and to be cured and John’s wife is someone to be controlled and treated. Her opinions are ignored because she both a patient and a woman.

The medical and paternalistic models of disability are outdated, ineffective, and dehumanizing. John, who has “no patience with faith” and who “scoffs openly at things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures,” reduces his wife to a concept and a set of technical symptoms and treatments. These broken models end up worsening her illness and failing outright; she admits herself that “John is a physician and perhapsperhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” In many instances, doctors simply treat a patient’s symptoms and not the cause of their distress. The medical model, after all, is fueled by materialism and money.

John’s medicinal paternalism also prevents his wife from expressing her solution to her illness. She says that she believes “congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (Section 1). She tries to express what she knows will help her; because she is both a patient and a woman, though, her ideas are immediately dismissed. Disability has isolated her, subjected her to her husband’s control, and stripped her of her power and autonomy. She is, in a way, the madwoman in the attic.

She is disempowered by John’s medicinal and cure-oriented mindset and his unyielding paternalism. Ironically, if not appropriately, John’s power fails to prevent his wife’s complete progression into her disability/madness. Here is the oppressive failure of the medical and paternalistic models of disability perfectly personified.

What is one to do?

Written by Robert

September 28th, 2010 at 11:39 pm

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