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The Normalization of Low Expectations – Erik Kondo

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

The concept of normalization has been well established. Normalization occurs when ideas and behaviors that fall outside of current social norms come to be seen as “normal”. Normalization has the potential to be both positive and negative. A positive aspect of normalization is to dispel negative stereotypes that hold people back. For example, images depicting women in politics and running businesses normalizes women in leadership roles. On the other hand, the normalization of undesirable behaviors such as bullying has a detrimental effect on school children.

Normalization is a subtle form of promotion. To normalize something is to encourage it indirectly. Normalization is an effective means to influence people because they typically do not notice its effect on them. It slowly changes their attitudes and behaviors over time.

Not only can normalization be used to change people’s attitudes, it can also be used to confirm and cement people’s attitudes. In this case, normalization provides a standard that society has determined is “normal” and differing behavior is now “abnormal”.

Imagine what it would have been like if bicycles had not progressed beyond what was considered normal in the 1950’s. What if society deemed that bicycles were only for the unfortunate people who could not afford a car? There would be no mountain bikes, BMXs, tandems, super light-weight carbon fiber frames, recumbents, folding bikes, and electrical assists. Think of all the people during the past decades who would have missed out on pleasurable mobility experiences and efficient forms of transportation. Think of how far biking performance has progressed over this time period. This stagnation did not happen because for personal mobility devices, constant advancement and innovation is the normal state of affairs. Sadly, this rule does not apply to wheelchairs on a wide scale.

Society has determined that it is normal for wheelchair users to expect their wheelchair to be ill-fitting, clunky, and difficult to maneuver. The normal state is one of low expectations for the mobility performance of a wheelchair. Wheelchairs are considered to be standardized medical devices of last resort mobility. How a wheelchair fits and performs does not really matter. One-size-fits-all is how wheelchairs are normally seen. The thinking is “why bother with innovation and improving performance when most people with disabilities can barely get around without help anyway?”

The ability for people to be mobile has a direct effect on their quality of life. Personal mobility allows people to access and interact with people, places, and things. Besides this practical aspect, moving your body through space is a pleasurable experience. People like to move because it stimulates their mind and body. Reducing a person’s mobility takes away from his or her quality of life. Look no further than the prison system for confirmation of this fact. The flip side is that increasing a person’s personal mobility has the effect of improving their quality of life.

The above staged image was used as the cover photo for a PBS feature on people with disabilities. It is likely that the editors of PBS are familiar with the importance of the images that they convey in terms of diversity and accurate representation. Most likely, the photo seemed normal to them which is exactly the problem.

The easiest way to depict a person with a disability is to put a random person in a wheelchair. Any wheelchair and model will do. Images have a powerful effect because “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The more perceived realism in the image, the more weight it carries for creating normalization. In the case of the PBS photo, the setting is real, the model is thoughtfully attired. The one glaring unrealistic element is her huge, outdated, and ill-fitting wheelchair.

While the wheelchair may be unrealistic, its use in the photo is normal. The wheelchair is only unrealistic to those in society who know better. Those few who recognize that such a wheelchair would have an extremely detrimental effect on the user’s personal mobility had she actually had to use it. For everyone else, her wheelchair is normal. The general thinking is as follows: Sure, it is too heavy and wide for her to push effectively on her own. Someone else would be pushing her anyway, right? Her attendant will get it in and out of the car for her. She is likely not to be on her own anyway. What difference does it make? A wheelchair is a wheelchair. And that is a normal wheelchair, right? The truth is that her wheelchair fit is NOT normal. Normalizing it makes it seem acceptable. It is not acceptable.

Here is another image that is NOT acceptable as an article cover photo in today’s world.

Pandemic means that American Women aren’t getting the services that they need

If you look at the photo below, you can see that the wheelchair used by Marlon Brando in The Men is not so different from the one the young woman is using in the PBS photo above. The main difference is that Marlon’s wheelchair fits him better than the young woman's.

Pandemic means that Americans with disabilities aren’t getting the services that they need

The normalization of low expectations for wheelchair users is such that appropriateness of a model’s wheelchair is not even a consideration for a photo shoot. The thought of what negative normalizing image the wheelchair conveys is not considered. It falls far below aspects such as outfit, hair, makeup, and just about everything else.

In order to end this article on a positive note, the following video is a montage I created with the hope of normalizing high expectations for wheelchairs and those who use them.

Wheelchairs Are Awesome!

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