Visiting professor lectures on disability, impairment

Ita Tsai

University of Toledo professor Mark Sherry visited Grand Valley State University on Monday, Feb. 26, to lecture on disability and impairment. Around 90 faculty members and students filled the conference room at Lake Michigan Hall for Sherry’s lecture, titled “A Sociology of Impairment and Disability.” 

The lecture was based off Sherry’s forthcoming book, “A Sociology of Impairment,” where he proposes the existence of a “social model of impairment.” Sherry said the word “disability” in itself is associated with negative judgment, which has made many people with impairment deny  they were disabled to avoid being judged. 

This psychological phenomenon is known as identity acrobatics when an individual with impairment goes through a process of false consciousness of denying a “disabled identity.” However, those that suffer from impairment still need the aids that are provided to disabled people, so in those instances they do need to accept the label.

Out of the 700 people that he interviewed for his research, he found that one out of three patients had problems with their diagnosis. This is what is known as diagnostic overshadowing, where “doctors figure that when you have a mental illness, all your physical symptoms are in your head.”

Sherry also discussed the systematic sexism that exists nowadays. Most autoimmune diseases are sexed. For example, women are much more likely to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder. However, Sherry explained that because “it’s a disease that we don’t see, people think that it doesn’t exist.” He said that it was common for patients with non-visible impairments to be disbelieved by their doctors, many attributing the symptoms to hysteria or assuming they are made up.

“I thought the lecture was great,” said Elizabeth Wheatley, a professor of sociology at GVSU. “It called upon the social construction of diagnosis, kinds of inequalities that exist in the healthcare system for many people with various kinds of impairment. 

“I think students need to be more aware in their everyday interactions. They may not even know that someone has a disability and they make assumptions based on appearance, which can be misleading.”

Wheatley expressed her desire to see more classes offered in this realm of expertise, as well as an interest in applying some of the ideas that Sherry presented into her classes.

Sherry also highlighted the growing importance of “narrative medicine.” Illness narratives are important because just by listening to their stories, one can really validate the experiences of people with disabilities.

After the lecture was given, a round of questions began. Sherry explained that “nobody’s entitled to ask about a person’s condition. Listen to what they have to say, if they do share, to the part that they are willing to share at that given circumstance.

“People’s experiences are far more complex than people give them credit for. … It’s important to ensure that people who are disabled have the rights and freedoms that everybody else has,” he said.