disability

In light of Romney’s comments regarding those who depend on the government, we thought we’d re-post this great data showing that many people who are using government social programs don’t know they are doing so.  

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Dolores R. sent in a fascinating image posted at boingboing. It comes from a paper by Suzanne Mettler, a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell. Mettler first asked survey participants whether they had ever used a federal U.S. government program. Then later in the survey she specifically asked respondents whether they had ever benefited from or participated in specific federal programs. As it turns out, large number of people who have benefited from various federal programs or policies do not recognize themselves as having done so. This table shows what percent of people who said they had participated in or used these 19 federal programs had earlier in the surveys said they had never used any social program:

Mettler argues that recipients are less likely to recognize themselves as benefiting from programs that are part of what she calls the “submerged state” — programs and policies that provide incentives and motivations for particular behaviors in the private sector, rather than overtly directing behavior. If you receive food stamps, you interact directly with a government agency, are required to periodically meet with a government worker and reapply to re-establish eligibility, and can point to a specific thing that links you to the program (these days usually a debit-type card rather than the old style coupons/stamps).

On the other hand, if you participate in the government’s mortgage interest deduction program, which encourages home ownership by allowing people to deduct the cost of mortgage interest from their taxable income (which you can’t do with rent costs, for instance), it’s less noticeable that you are benefiting from a federal policy. You get a form from your mortgage company that provides the relevant number, and you transfer it over to the correct line when you’re filling out taxes.

Notably, the programs recipients seem least likely to recognize as a government program are among those the middle (and higher) classes are most likely to use, while those more common among the poor are more clearly recognizable to those using them as government programs. Yet allowing you to write off mortgage interest (but not rent), or charitable donations, or the money you put aside for a child’s education, are all forms of government programs, ones that benefit some more than others. But the “submerged” nature of these policies hides the degree to which the middle and upper classes use and benefit from federal programs.

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

My post today comes from a class on ableism and disabled bodies that I taught earlier this past semester in my Social Problems course. Its inception came from the point at which I wanted to introduce my students to Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborgs, because I saw some useful connections between one and the other.

My angle was to begin with the idea of able-bodied society’s instinctive, gut-level sense of discomfort and fear regarding disabled bodies, which is outlined in disability studies scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell’s book Contours of Ableism. Briefly, Campbell distinguishes between disableism, which are the set of discriminatory ideas and practices that construct the world in such a way that it favors the able-bodied and marginalizes the disabled, andableism, which is the set of constructed meanings that set disabled bodies themselves apart as objects of distaste and discomfort. In this sense, disabled bodies are imbued with a kind of queerness – they are Other in the most physical sense, outside and beyond accepted norms, unknown and unknowable, uncontrollable, disturbing in how difficult they are to pin down. Campbell identifies this quality of unknowability and uncontainability as especially, viscerally horrifying.

Campbell connects more directly to Haraway’s cyborgs when she opens a discussion of biotechnology and disabled bodies:

The fortunes of techno-science continue to disrupt the fixity of defining disability and normalcy especially within the arenas of law and bioethics. Whilst anomalous bodies are undecidable in being open to endless and differing interpretations, an essentialised disabled body is subjected to constant deferral – standing in reserve, awaiting and escaping able(edness) through morphing technologies and as such exists in an ontologically tentative or provisional state.

Anomalous and disabled bodies are both unsettling to the able-bodied, therefore, because they implicitly lay open to question our assumptions about essential definitions of embodied humanity. Throw technology into the mix and the questions become even more explicit. What is human? What does human mean? And where is the line between organic human and machine – if there even is one? Haraway’s position is, of course, that there is no meaningful line, and that we are all, in some sense, cyborgs — that the relationship between the organic and the machine is so complex that it is no longer sensible to attempt to untangle it. And thanks to advances in prostheses and other biotechnologies, the boundary between “disabled” and “augmented” is becoming increasingly problematic, despite the essentializing power that the label of “disabled” contains.

In order to introduce my students to the ideas behind the relationship of different kinds of organic bodies to different kinds of technology, and how we culturally process those embodied relationships, I invited them to consider the cases of two amputee athletes, Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorius.

Mullins and Pistorius present interesting examples. They are both known for being both accomplished athletes and for being physically attractive – Mullins has done modeling work. They present inspiring stories that have generated a fair amount of sports media coverage. And yet things have not been altogether smooth – there has been some controversy regarding the degree to which the carbon fiber prostheses they use for running confer any form of advantage on the runners who use them. Questions over the effect of the prostheses have threatened Pistorius’s bids to compete in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes.

I think the combination of positive and negative reactions is worth noting, in light of Campbell’s writing on culture and disability. Mullins and Pistorius are admired for “overcoming” a perceived disability, and this admiration feels especially safe for people embedded in able-bodied culture because they are conventionally attractive in every other respect. But this is a story with which we only feel comfortable provided that it doesn’t present any kind of threat to our conventional categories of abled and disabled bodies. It is unacceptable for a disabled body to be better at what it does than an abled body. It is even slightly uncomfortable when a disabled body manages to be “just as good”.

After the images of Mullins and Pistorius, I also showed my students this image of speed skater Apollo Ohno. Like the images of Mullins and Pistorius, Ohno’s body is explicitly being presented here as an attractive object. By most standards, Ohno is as able-bodied as one can get. But as I pointed out to my students, he manages this on the back of technology – on specially designed skates, in special aerodynamic suits, with the help of carefully balanced exercise and nutrition plans; almost no athlete is really “natural” anymore. But at least in part because of the closeness of his body to an able-bodied ideal, this presents no explicit threat to our categories. Ohno fits the accepted model of “human”. Who would look at him and doubt it? And if Mullins and Pistorius are perhaps not as close to that ideal, they at least fall into line with it, by virtue of the fact that they don’t explicitly question its legitimacy as an ideal – unless they seek to transcend it.

My point, in short, is this: we are uncomfortable with disabled bodies that question or trouble our accepted, hierarchical categories of abled and disabled, of human and non-human, of organic and machine. We are far more comfortable with them when they perform in such a way that they reinforce the supremacy of those categories. They become acceptable to us.

Sarah Wanenchak is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on contentious politics and communications technology in a global context. She has also worked on the place of culture in combat and warfare, including the role of video games in modern war and meaning-making. She is an occasional blogger at Cyborgology.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.

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People seem to love to talk about human nature. But when they do, they often do so with the smallest of imaginations. The 10-minute video below suggests that scientists have only begun to understand what humans are capable of. Prepare to be amazed:

Via Oscillatory Thoughts.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I am a huge fan of the television series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I want to problematize some of the humor we often take for granted in the show. In a recent interview with Conan O’Brien, Charlie Day discusses some of the changes introduced into the upcoming season of the show. Specifically, about 1:30 in, they discuss the weight gain that Rob McElhenney (“Fat Mac”) accomplished in pursuit of a “funnier” character (image via):

Notice how Charlie Day and Conan laugh—freely and unapologetically—at the prospect of Mac contracting diabetes (especially Conan’s mocking “Go America!” response to the image of “Fat Mac”):

Continue watching the interview to the 4:45 mark; Conan broaches the topic of mental retardation contained in an earlier episode (Season 3 Episode 9: “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person”). You will notice that Charlie Day seems more hesitant and calculated in discussing the topic of mental disability. For one, he uses the word “mental disability” rather than the more pejorative “retarded.” You will also notice less of an audience response, a less raucous reaction to the prospect of someone being mentally disabled than to them being fat.

Mental disability, as a largely ascribed status, serves as a less-viable source of humor. That is, laughing at someone who is born a particular way, or gains that status for reasons beyond their control, violates our precepts of political correctness. However, being overweight is often interpreted as caused by a personal character flaw (laziness, gluttony, etc.) and therefore an achieved status. Laughing at fat people, then, is not only socially acceptable, but often encouraged in American comedy.

This highlights the centrality of individualism and personal responsibility in American society. We hold the obese and the overweight accountable for their corporeal deviations. We tend to believe that those who are overweight (and those who contract Type 2 Diabetes) are responsible for their conditions. It then becomes socially acceptable to mock them. On the flipside, mental disability, as an ascribed status, is more likely to be defined as “off limits” as a source of humor. When it becomes a source of humor, as in this case, comedians must save face by saying things like “Nothing against the mentally disabled, but…” as Charlie does at the 5:25 mark—a form of hedging he didn’t feel obliged to include when laughing at someone’s weight.

Who we can laugh at, and whether we have to apologize for doing so, reveals larger cultural discourses, and analyzing humor allows us to understand some of the prevailing moral assumptions we take for granted.

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David Paul Strohecker (@dpsFTW) is getting his PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park. He studies issues of intersectionality, consumption, and popular culture. He is currently doing work on the popularization of tattooing, a project on the revolutionary pedagogy of public sociology, and more theoretical work on zombie films as a vehicle for expressing social and cultural anxieties. He previously wrote for the blog Racism Review and currently blogs at Cyborgology.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Re-posted in honor of Love Your Body Day.

This symbol is the international symbol for persons with disabilities:

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It looks pretty straightforward.  Descriptive even.

But check out this symbol that I saw at a T.J. Maxx in California:

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Notice how the second symbol represents people with disabilities as active and independent.  There are motion signs and the figure is pushing its own chair.

The comparison reveals how much the first represents them as passive and helpless.

UPDATE! In the comments thread, Penny added a link to the symbol they use at the Huntington Library (Pasadena, CA):

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For  more posts on symbology, see our posts on traffic lights with female figures, stick figures and stick figures who parent, and default avatars.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

According to a 2008 market research study, 72% of yoga practitioners in the U.S. are women; 71% are college educated and 27% have postgraduate degrees; and 44% have annual incomes of $75,000 or more.  Yoga practitioners, then, do not reflect the general population.

So how inclusive is yoga?  A collection of covers from the magazine Yoga Journal, spanning the years 1975 to 2010, sent in by Janet T., gives us a clue.

As she points out, the historical progression of covers illustrates how the magazine started out with explicit connections to India and traditional yogis (below) and gradually moved towards featuring (and thus creating) western yoga superstars.

Of the 186 Yoga Journal covers that include a photograph (not an illustration) 78% show only white people. Though a 1997 issue with a story on “yoga in the inner-city” features a man of color:

66% of single-person photos are of a woman.  At least two covers include a story on yoga for people who aren’t necessarily young, thin, and able-bodied, but show a photograph women who are.


Although the feminization of yoga has been noted (and conversely, the need to masculinize yoga in order to appeal to men), it is rarely acknowledged that while women make up the majority of yoga practitioners, studio owners are more likely to be men.  Moreover, yoga superstars, such as Bikram Choudhury (the creator of the Bikram style of yoga practiced in a heated room), with incomes in the multi-millions, are overwhelmingly men.

In addition, while most yoga practitioners are female, the language of yoga is male, and assumes a gender-conforming (and often athletic and thin) body.  Some bloggers have called attention to raced, classed, gendered, sizist, and transphobic practices in American yoga culture that can be alienating and discouraging to current or would-be yogis, thus denying the potentially therapeutic elements of yoga to much of the U.S. population.  For example, the costs associated with yoga practice (classes, equipment, etc.) make it out of reach for most low-income people, while the gendered way that yoga philosophy understands the human body can make it uncomfortable for some transgender folks.

So, through the past 35 years of Yoga Journal covers, we can see how the representation of yoga in America both creates and reinforces a symbolic understanding of a practice intended for a very particular audience.

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Christie Barcelos is a doctoral student in Public Health at the University of Massachusetts who rarely sees anyone who looks like her in yoga class.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

The Demographics

During disasters, poor people, people of color, and the elderly die in disproportionate numbers (source), and Katrina was no exception. Many decisions were made in the days leading up to and shortly after Katrina that amplified loss of life for these groups. New Orleans is both a poor (23% poverty rate pre-Katrina – twice the national average) and segregated city, and these factors led to loss of life. First, an effective evacuation plan was not in place that accounted for the 112,000 poor, mostly black New Orleanians without cars. Additionally, the timing of the storm at the end of the month meant that those receiving public assistance were unusually cash-strapped. To make matters worse for poor people with children, school had just started so expenses for the month were higher than usual.

The immobile poor were disproportionately left behind and lost their lives. A comprehensive study of evacuees to Houston (who had stayed behind during the storm) found that 22% were physically unable to evacuate, 14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease (source). Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

Age was also a factor in fatalities. Nearly 40% of those who died in Katrina were elderly, and many more elderly individuals died from the stress of evacuation and home loss.

Government Response

Mayor Nagin received nearly $20 million to establish a workable evacuation plan in plenty of time for Katrina, but it’s questionable whether it was ever developed, and it was never disseminated. Two months before Katrina, Nagin spent money to produce and distribute DVDs in poorer neighborhoods to inform residents that they would be on their own if a storm hit because the city could not afford to evacuate them.  In the days before the storm, Nagin sent empty Amtrak trains out of the city, failed to mobilized available school and other buses, and waited an entire day to call for a mandatory evacuation so he could determine whether the City would face lawsuits from local businesses (source). All of these decisions were deadly.

The federal response was no better. The city was quiet after the storm whipped through late Sunday night/early Monday morning when President Bush announced that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” Within hours, three major levees breaches and over fifty minor breaches flooded the city. Despite Governor Blanco’s request for federal assistance on Saturday (two days before the storm made landfall) and concern from local media on Sunday (one day before the storm) that the levees wouldn’t hold, they breached on Monday morning with only two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers on the ground (see the timeline). It would take two days for 1,000 additional officials to arrive.

Once on the ground, FEMA slowed the evacuation with unworkable paperwork and certification requirements. Marc Cresswell, a medic from a private ambulance company, reported that “At one point I had 10 helicopters on the ground waiting to go, but FEMA kept stonewalling us with paperwork. Meanwhile, every 30 or 40 minutes someone was dying.” FEMA was also criticized for turning away personnel, vehicles, medical equipment, food and other supplies, and diesel fuel.

The 30,000 people who evacuated to the Superdome (per Nagin’s instructions) were stranded for a week. Those who evacuated to the Superdome experienced deplorable conditions – unbearable heat, darkness, the stench of sewage, and a lack of food and water. They were not allowed to leave, and, according to several evacuees I interviewed in Texas shortly after the storm, this led one man to take his life by jumping from a balcony. This death was one of only six deaths at the Superdome: one person overdosed and four others died of natural causes. Another 20,000 people gathered at the Convention Center for assistance, an evacuation site the federal government was unaware of until three days after the storm.

President Bush was otherwise occupied during this time. The day Katrina hit, he traveled to Arizona and California to promote his prescription drug plan, had birthday cake with John McCain, and attended a Padres game.

Panicked at the slow federal response, Governor Blanco sent an urgent request: “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.” The president retired to bed that night without responding to Blanco. The next day, he sang songs with country singer Mark Willis and returned to Texas for the final night of his vacation. The President was so oblivious to the suffering in New Orleans that his staff made a video of news coverage four days after the storm to sensitize him. And, in response, President Bush’s team assembled a carefully crafted PR plan to blame local officials seven days into the ordeal while thousands of people were still stranded. Later that same day, President Bush made the infamous statement, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s blog.


Squee sent in some rather odd commercials put together by the Norwegian Association of the Blind. The commercials encourage companies to hire blind individuals…by arguing that you can get away with doing things in front of, or to, blind workers because, you know, they won’t be able to tell anyway:

The message is a little strange, I think — trying to provide more employment opportunities for a group that may suffer from job discrimination by reinforcing the idea that if if someone is blind, they are completely clueless about what’s going on around them and, thus, their non-blind coworkers can act in ways that would be totally inappropriate if done to/around any other colleague.

Does that seem like an effective strategy to you?