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By Guest Blogger Kathe Palermo Skinner, M.A., L.M.F.T.

Disability blog (

As a marriage and family therapist with multiple sclerosis, I write for this blog and others like it, getting the opportunity to be a source of strength for people and their families. That’s why I was surprised when one organization denied my professional presence because I didn’t have that specific chronic illness/disability.

Though illness-specific groups may be essential to living well, the “micro” view of disability dilutes what’s important for the non-disabled world to know. Advocating for one chronicity over another may be a reason society doesn’t see an inclusive, “macro” view of disability/chronic illness.

For inclusion to be successful, the commonality between disorders needs emphasis, not the differences between them.

Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen

The more “chefs” that compete for “counter space,” the smaller the counter space per chef becomes. Just ask me and David when we’re in the kitchen together.

People’s attention span is similarly filled up. With only eight seconds before the brain moves on, it’s imperative that disability advocates grab attention quickly. It’s not about the cause; it’s about whether the cause catches the eye. Think pink.  If you associate it with breast cancer awareness, you just illustrated my point.

And when many organizations compete for the same amount of space, there’s always an organization that doesn’t make the cut. It takes lots of money to develop brand awareness, keeping any disability in the public eye, which is where lots of fundraised dollars go. For example, the success of breast cancer’s “pink ribbon” campaign reduces visibility of all other cancers. The “pinks” don’t even share the spotlight.

Interestingly, there’s been a pinkish backlash that the campaign is about advertisers rather than the illness itself. Some corporations may spend much more on advertising and product-development than they do supporting patients through corporate giving.

Holding a Sign

Throughout the millennia, physical characteristics have defined which partner we pick in order to further the species. Even today, positive physical attributes often define who we choose in a variety of situations.

Studies in social and behavioral sciences repeatedly demonstrate this phenomenon. Ask yourself who is generally more desirable – even approachable – a pretty, smiling woman or the same woman who’s using an assistive device?

While physical traits may vary across culture and time, physical disability seems always to be a disqualification.

Different Is Bad

When Mom and I went mushroom hunting, she knew what was safe to pick. Even so, except for the two of us, no one in our mushroom-loving family ate Mom’s soup.

Most of us seek sameness: what we already know represents safety in a dangerous world. Like knowing which mushrooms to eat, being able to quickly pick out who is different is a survival technique that can increase our chance of being on the winning (i.e., not dead) side. While jumping to conclusions poisons thinking, when it comes to survival, what is thought to be safe is better than being sorry.

People with visible disabilities and chronic illnesses pay a stiff toll, daily. Even de jure protections like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) don’t quickly change society’s de facto attitudes or treatment. Consequently, significant portions of the population entitled to the protections of the ADA remain invisible, choosing to avoid what happens too often to people with disabilities in work, housing and relationships.

The In Crowd

My mother tried to get me to act in rational, rather than group-think, ways by employing interspecies logic that often involved lemmings. Like lemmings, we like to affiliate. Higher-order species have a “mine is better than yours” mentality; no one likes to be chosen last for kickball. Put another way, a person needs to feel superior to someone else. For example, I’m sometimes told, “At least I don’t have multiple sclerosis.”

Rather than forming a coalition that has strength in numbers, disability associations are often narrowly defined and exclusive, repelling people who don’t fit the bill (think pink). Sameness attracts the same, so when selectivity combines with disability, the result may be a man who judges other disabilities as not being as prestigious or disabling as his own. Or that another chronicity is less normal than his own.

Show Me the Money

Fundraising 101 teaches that attracting glamour to a cause is a win-win: Celebrities earn brownie points for social responsibility and organizations gain public awareness, which they hope translates into dollars.

How successful a cause is at the funding game is based on two realities from the world of social psychology: The group with well-produced and well-managed public relations and advertising is judged to be trustworthy and knowledgeable; and the more followers an organization has, the more adherents it draws. The Labor Day telethon is illustrative: highly regarded spokespeople increase giving; and the more people give, the more others are likely to give, too.

There are reasons all people don’t unite under the disabled/chronically ill banner. If no one otherwise knew you had a disability, would you want them to know? Do you have trouble identifying with some types of disability? Want to escape the judgment, treatment, discrimination, politics, classism, fractionalization, in-fighting and politics of disability inclusion?  Or do you simply have other things (like eating) on your plate?

The discomfort with, fear of and misunderstanding of the disabled population still exists, even among the disability community itself. Housing disproportionate numbers of people with disabilities, asylums existed as recently as 50 years ago. One-fourth of people with disabilities in this nation live below the poverty level, while the federal government codifies what ought to be a moral imperative in the first place.

Disability is an eight-second sound bite: Limbless vets, autistic kids, select high achievers. Inclusion? The disability community itself is exclusionary; perhaps we need to look for answers there, first.

Kathe Skinner has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis for more than 35 years and knows first-hand what discrimination and judgment feel like in work and relationships and is now working to adapt to a changed reality as her disease progresses. Thankful for stability in two areas of her life, she has been married for almost 30 years and is a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Colorado where she lives with husband, David, and their two hooligan cats. Read more about Kathe at or Kathe welcomes your comments and can be reached at 719.598.6232.

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