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Where Have All the Abnormal People Gone?

By Hanson, F. Allan | The Humanist, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Where Have All the Abnormal People Gone?

Hanson, F. Allan, The Humanist

A small but significant portion of the population has always consisted of people who are "different," who are outside the mainstream for one reason or another: the mentally ill, criminals, people with various physical disabilities and conditions, homosexuals, persons of indeterminate gender, and so on. In the past such people were stigmatized as "abnormal" and it was common to hide them away as not fit for public viewing. Now the trend is toward valuing many human differences positively (under the banner of diversity) rather than negatively. As a result, "different" people are more visible today while "abnormal" people are less in the public consciousness because that label is dropping out of common use. How has that transformation come about? And does it represent an unequivocally positive step toward a more compassionate society?

These questions can be addressed more easily if we contrast the current situation with how the distinction between normal and abnormal worked in the past. Probably its most important function was to set out in highly visible form acceptable standards for human living and behaving. One could plainly see how not to be merely by looking at abnormal people. And the ridicule, exclusion, and other sanctions leveled against them motivated others to tailor themselves to the social image of the perceived normal.

Discrimination against abnormal people was facilitated by the tendency to designate entire persons as abnormal if they possessed certain traits considered to be such. According to the "labeling theory" of deviance proposed by Erving Goffman and Howard S. Becker (who both wrote on this subject in 1963), the stigmatized trait is transformed into a "master status" that so overwhelms the individual's other traits in the eyes of society that it becomes the only characteristic by which that person is known and evaluated. My suggestion is that the notion of the abnormal is losing its force today because abnormal traits are less readily promoted to the level of master status than before. Furthermore, certain traits themselves, previously assumed to be abnormal, are now being reclassified as normal.


Traditionally, disabilities have been conceptualized and treated in terms of a medical model that focuses on disabled individuals. The individual's physical or mental condition was diagnosed as a pathology, and physicians or therapists would treat the patient in an effort to achieve medical, social, vocational, and other forms of healing and rehabilitation. The change that constituted improvement or a cure was always a change in the disabled individual brought about through the intervention of health care providers.

This model reinforced the classification of disabled people as abnormal. Many disabilities--blindness, deafness, mental retardation, paraplegia, and the like--were held to so thoroughly permeate all facets of sufferers' lives that they constituted a decisive factor in virtually everything the individuals did and thus became their master status. In this way, people with disabilities were defined as different from (and less than) others. They were classified as abnormal and were subjected to various forms of treatment, discrimination, institutionalization, and exclusion.

However, the medical model of disabilities is changing. One measure of that is the uncertainty surrounding the terms that should be used to refer to people with disabilities. Should we say handicapped, disabled, differently abled, limited, challenged or something else? Tired jokes about politically correct language aside, the uncertainty about terminology reflects a real paradigm shift in attitudes. The idea is gaining momentum that disability describes not an individual but a particular kind of relationship. As French physician and anthropologist Claude Hamonet puts it, "A handicap is viewed not as a systematically inferior condition [of an individual] but as a disequilibrium established between the remaining capabilities of the handicapped individual and the exigencies of his or her environment.

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Where Have All the Abnormal People Gone?


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