Counselors', Rehabilitation Providers', and Teachers' Perceptions of Mental and Physical Disabilities

Article excerpt

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the challenge to provide culturally relevant services to individuals of diverse backgrounds becomes even more critical to human service professionals (Alston, Harley, & Middleton, 2006; Carney & Cobia, 1994; Thomas & Alfred, 2008). Cultural refers to more than ethnic or racial heritage; cultural also includes social and interpersonal relationships, institutions, language and communication, values, age, gender, religion, belief systems, occupations, sexual orientations, disabilities, and appearance (Baruth & Manning, 2003; Corey, 2005; Gopaul-McNicol & Thomas-Presswood, 1998). The importance of understanding service professionals' perceptions of cultural diversity in a pluralistic society is especially significant for human service professionals and those who prepare future human service professionals (Curtis, 1998; Shippen, Crites, Houchins, Ramsey, & Simon, 2005). For the purposes of the current study, this understanding begins with a deconstruction of the term disability and what it means.

Societal constructs include the many ways that society refers to the concept of disability. Disability is a broad term that encompasses ideologies that refer to a "non-normative" existence and a "departure from that which is ideal" (Robinson-Wood, 2009, p. 253). The term has also been socially constructed from a devaluing of "bodies that do not conform to cultural standards" (Robinson-Wood, 2009, p. 252) of normalcy. The conceptual understanding of disability has been shaped by language and other sociocultural practices, by institutions, and by politics (Moore & Feist-Price, 1999). Having a disability can include a myriad of physical, cognitive, sensory, developmental, psychiatric, or multiple conditions. These multiple identities and how people are socialized to think and feel about disability affect the quality of life and life satisfaction of individuals with disabilities (Alston et al., 2006; Larkin, Alston, Middleton, & Wilson, 2003). People with disabilities face discrimination resulting from negative opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions held about disabilities (Biklen, 1986; Biklen & Bailey, 1981; Bogdan & Knoll, 1995; Bowe, 1978, 1990). In fact, Fleischer and Zames (2001) have defined handicapism as a set of assumptions and practices that promote the dissimilar and unequal treatment of people on the basis of differences that are physical, mental, or behavioral in nature. These differences can be either apparent or assumed of individuals. Often, people with disabilities may be perceived as a threat to the physical safety of individuals without disabilities because of assumed violent, destructive, aggressive, and antisocial behavior on the part of the individual with a disability (Hyler, 1988; Hyler, Gabbard, & Schneider, 1991). Additional assumptions may be that individuals with a disability are dangerous because they are contagious or can contaminate others with their disability (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 1999).

Even at the professional level, people with disabilities may find that they are attributed with negative or greater limitations than those actually experienced because individuals without disabilities are unsure how to respond to them (Smart, 2009). This discomfort and ambiguity, or interaction strain (Fichten, Robillard, Tagalakis, & Amsel, 1991; Gouvier, Coon, Todd, & Fuller, 1994), is often experienced by individuals without disabilities as decreased interaction with people with disabilities, including fewer conversations and less physical and eye contact (Livneh, 1982, 1983, 1991). To some individuals without disabilities, the effects of the disability are overgeneralized (or spread) to all aspects of the individual with the disability to the point that such individuals are discounted or underrated in general (Wright, 1988).

Aggravating the impact of interaction strain and spread is the "hierarchy of stigma" (Smart, 2009, p. …