Tao of Positive Psychology

            Overall, the field of positive psychology is just that – positive.  However, there are times when a scientific and/or scholarly approach requires us to pay more attention to being realistic, as opposed to being blindly or foolishly happy-go-lucky.  In other words, as good social scientists, we must apply critical thinking skills to anything we study.

            In this section we will begin with a critical analysis of various aspects of positive psychology, and then we’ll take a look at several areas of study where one might not expect the field of positive psychology to be involved, to wit, the topics of disability studies, racism, and tribalism.

            Mick Power (2016) has written a very interesting book, entitled Understanding Happiness:  A Critical Review of Positive Psychology.  Simply put, he challenges the notion that happiness is as easy as a 10-step program mixed in with a little positive thinking.  I consider an overall critical approach to be essential, because it keeps us focused on the pursuit of realistic goals.  Keep in mind, when I use the term “critical” it refers to a rational, logical, and thoughtful approach.  It most definitely does not refer to the common usage of “critical” as something which is always negative.

            When I first went on a sabbatical, in 2009, I studied the psychology of disability and martial arts programs for people with a physical disability (Kelland, 2009, 2010).  Not only were both the article and the subsequent book intended to present a positive perspective on how Buddhist mindfulness applied through martial arts training could help people improve their lives, the book also included a specific section on positive psychology.  More recently, Michael Wehmeyer (2013) edited a collection of works resulting in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Disability.

            Finally, we will examine two topics that are not entirely unrelated:  racism and tribalism.  In his classic treatise on prejudice, Gordon Allport (1979) discussed the conceptual use of “they” as the definition and identification of out-groups.  Whatever is going wrong in life, “they” are the ones to blame!  It appears that racism, perhaps in a more primitive form of tribalism (simply us vs. them), is hard wired in the human brain (Marsh et al., 2010).  However, the same research which tells us we are born racist also sheds light on how we may combat this insidious problem in human society.

A Critical Analysis of Positive Psychology

            We won’t spend much time challenging what we’ve studied about positive psychology, but there are at least two good reasons why we should.  First, if positive psychology really is the scientific study of what makes for a good life and/or psychological well-being, then we must be critical in our analysis.  By ‘critical’ I don’t mean being negative, rather I mean that we should consider alternative perspectives and explanations for what we learn so that we might be more confident about it (if, indeed, what we’ve learned holds up to that scrutiny).

            The second reason for a critical analysis of positive psychology is that it provides a nice transition into the material we are about to cover:  disabilities and bigotry.  Most educated people would agree that these are important topics to discuss, but few would consider them topics for a positive psychology course.  But where do we need to focus on the positive more than with those whose lives are currently in a negative state (or perhaps aren’t, but that’s what we’ll study)?  So if we approach our studies with open minds, aka critical analyses, we might learn something important.

          As Power puts it in his preface:


            So this book is premised on a very simple proposal – that ‘happiness’ has come to be used mistakenly as an end to be aimed for rather than being merely an ephemeral emotion.  It is time to drop the illusions and delusions that are a consequence of such an impossible pursuit.  Instead, we need to pursue our valued roles and goals, our relationships, and our hobbies in and of themselves.  Meaningful work, connection through relationships and the occasional holiday in Italy go a long way to making life tolerable, and then dealing as best you can with the adversities that inevitably come at you.  If your pursuits offer fleeting feelings of happiness, and of course many other emotions along the way, so be it. (pg. ix; Power, 2016)

Happiness and Love

            In his critique of happiness, Power (2016) refers to two important concepts:  the happiness formula (H = S + C + V) and the hedonic treadmill (see Seligman, 2002).  According to the formula, enduring happiness is the combination of your set point (primarily biological), your circumstances in life (external factors), and your voluntary actions (the choices you make).  Since only the choices you make are under your control, your overall happiness is primarily outside of your control.  To make matters worse, when you choose things that make you happy, according to the theory of the hedonic treadmill you will quickly adapt to those sources of happiness.  In other words, the things you choose to make you happy will soon no longer work.

            This takes us back to the concept presented at the end of the quote above.  If happiness is only a temporary emotion, then its pursuit as a permanent state of being is a fool’s errand.  Power suggests instead that we look at people, and their lives, in terms of what he calls the HAS and HAS-nots.  In this case HAS is an acronym for Healthy lifestyle, Adaptability, and Sociability.  If you live a healthy lifestyle, and are flexible (something we’ll address below), and maintain at least some healthy relationships/friendships, then you will, at least from time to time, experience happiness.

            However, the pursuit of relationships can lead to problems as well, especially when the relationships you pursue are loving relationships.  Power begins with the approach that love is a disorder of happiness.  Literature is replete with descriptions of love unfortunately leading to painfully negative experiences.

            In The Art of Courtly Love, recognized as the original classic on romantic love, by Andreas Capellanus (c1185):


     Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex…That love is suffering is easy to see, for before the love becomes equally balanced on both sides there is no torment greater, since the lover is always in fear that his love may not gain its desire and that he is wasting his efforts…To tell the truth, no one can number the fears of one single lover. (pg. 28; Capellanus, 1185/1941)


     Men find it easy enough to get into Love’s court, but difficult to stay there, because of the pains that threaten lovers; …For after a lover has really entered into the court of Love he has no will either to do or not to do anything except what Love’s table sets before him or what may be pleasing to the other lover.  Therefore we ought not seek a court of this kind, for one should by all means avoid entering a place which he cannot freely leave.  Such a place may be compared to the court of hell, for although the door of hell stands open for all who wish to enter, there is no way of getting out after you are once in. (pg. 71; Capellanus, 1185/1941)


            In The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (c1621):


            Now if this passion of love can produce such effects if it be pleasantly intended, what bitter torments shall it breed when it is with fear and continual sorrow, suspicion, care, agony, as commonly it is, still accompanied! what an intolerable pain must it be! (pg. 148; Burton, 1621/1927b)


            In Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (c1591)


     This love that thou hast shown
     Doth add more grief to too much of mine own.
     Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
      Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
      Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears.
      What is it else? A madness most discreet,
      A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.
          (pg. 861; Shakespeare, c1591/1969)


            In As You Like It by William Shakespeare (c1600)


     Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too. (pg. 261; Shakespeare, c1600/1969)


            Power suggests that love may be similar to a manic or hypomanic state.  Such individuals can experience extremely positive emotion, but their emotions are also highly labile.  When love goes wrong, especially when an obsessive love is unrequited or a relationship is betrayed by infidelity, then the problems that arise can become quite dangerous – literally and physically!

            While it may seem unfair to challenge love based on situations in which love has gone wrong, the truth is that most romantic loving relationships end.  However, there are other types of loving relationships that are more enduring.  For example, the love a parent has for their children is quite different than the love between the two parents of those children.  Many marriages end in bitter divorce, yet those two parents may well love their children just as strongly as ever and forever.

            So love may be a wonderful thing, but it may or may not be permanent, and whether it is long-term depends more on the type of love or the type of relationship leading to love than on the emotion of love itself.  Either way, it’s complicated.

The Value of Negative Emotions

            If you read a typical textbook on positive psychology you will come away with a pretty clear impression that negative emotions are something to be avoided.  However, suggesting that negative emotions are indeed negative is something of a bias.  After all, if we take an evolutionary perspective, they must have evolved to serve some useful purpose.

            Among the ‘basic’ emotions, most are negative:  sadness, anger, fear, and disgust (with only happiness as a basic positive emotion).  It may be difficult to think of these emotions in positive ways, but when we do their usefulness becomes clear, or at least it gives us even more to think about.  Consider sadness.  Movies that make us sad can be very popular, even ostensibly children’s movies, such as Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows.  Sadness helps us to process important losses, and may then help us to set priorities in our lives.  And for some inexplicable reason, people often cry when they are happy!

            Anger prepares us to stand up for ourselves.  Anger in the face of injustice is even seen as noble, and there are many examples of righteous anger on behalf of the god described in Judeo-Christian bibles.  Similarly, fear can alert us to danger.  If the danger is life-threatening, then maintaining vigilance is critical.  Disgust can also protect us from unhealthy substances and behaviors.

            Power (2016) ends with a brief discussion of creativity and negative emotions.  It is a well-known saying that artists have to suffer for their craft.  The association between depression and creativity is perhaps the best known, though it tends to go hand-in-hand with alcohol and drug abuse.  Of course, any such connection is merely correlational, and may not even be significant to begin with.

"A Timeshare in Paradise"

            The field of psychology has a long history of denying even the discussion of religion.  This has a lot to do with Sigmund Freud, an atheist who had an abiding contempt for religion (1927/1961; 1930/1961; 1939/1967).  And yet, Freud was fascinated with it, and repeatedly addressed the subject (though primarily as a psychological disorder).  In his definitive biography, Ernest Jones had this to say about Freud:


     …he told me once that he had never believed in a supernatural world.  Thus he went through his life from beginning to end as a natural atheist…one who saw no reason for believing in the existence of any supernatural Being and who felt no emotional need for such a belief.  The world of nature seemed all-embracing, and he could find no evidence of anything outside it. (pg. 351; Jones, 1957)


            As psychoanalysis became the dominant force in European psychology, America was primarily the domain of the behaviorists.  Most behaviorists, particularly the radical behaviorists, consider religion to be an invalid subject of study because gods and other divine beings cannot be examined or controlled.  In other words, you can’t do experiments on them!

            The humanistic psychologists were more open to spiritual considerations, if not outright religious beliefs, but Abraham Maslow led that field in the direction of Being and transcendence – in a decidedly existential way.  After all, Maslow was an atheist.  In contrast, Carl Rogers attended a seminary for a while, and spent a summer as the pastor of a small church.

            Meanwhile, throughout the history of psychology, there was the parallel field of anthropology, and some anthropologists were telling us that if you really wanted to understand people you needed to understand their religious beliefs, traditions, and rituals (Kardiner, et al., 1945; LeVine, 1973; Sorokin, 1947):


     …religion in its turn exerts the most decisive influence upon all groups and systems of culture, from science and the fine arts to politics and economics.  Without knowing the religion of a given culture or group - their systems of ultimate values - one cannot understand their basic traits and social movements. (pg. 228; Sorokin, 1947)


            Mick Power is an atheist, and directly challenges the value of religion in the field of positive psychology.  Perhaps I should note, for anyone who is curious, that I am also an atheist, as is my youngest son.  When he asked me once if I had heard of the books The God Delusion or God is Not Great (Dawkins, 2006; Hitchens, 2007), he was quite surprised to learn that I had a copy of each one.  There was a time when I was willing to consider that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, though not the son of any god.  Recently, however, it has become quite clear that Jesus never even existed (Fitzgerald, 2010; Lataster, 2013).  However, I know better than to argue with people of faith.  Faith, by definition, is believing in something for which there is no evidence.  So, well-reasoned arguments, no matter how rational or logical, are irrelevant.

            In Understanding Happiness, Power (2016) does not challenge the evidence that religion is associated with increased longevity and happiness in many people.  Indeed, he is quite fair in acknowledging the sense of community and support that religion can provide, which may primarily be a buffer against stress, anxiety, and depression.  Religion provides a sense of community, and it’s well-known in the field of psychology that Maslow included ‘belongingness and love needs’ in his hierarchy of needs.  It has also been found that people who experience another type of profoundly spiritual experience, a near-death experience, later become significantly more accepting, loving, and empathic toward others, and they have a greater sense of purpose in life (see Power, 2016).

            The problem with religion, however, is that it is a delusion.  There are no gods, and there is no afterlife.  Now this might seem irrelevant, but when we shift from looking at individuals to looking at society as a whole, religion starts to become much less beneficial, and in some instances dangerous.  For example, the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control has, among other problems, contributed greatly to the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Religious opposition to abortion has caused untold amounts of anxiety in many people, and in a few cases actually led to the murder of those who provide abortions.  Of potentially much greater concern is the global split between Christianity and Islam, especially when one throws into the mix the animosity between Judaism and Islam.  This religious animosity, among three religions that all share the same patriarch (Abraham – if any such person ever existed), is the most likely source of World War III (Power, 2016).  Even here in America, which pretends to cherish our first amendment and its call for freedom of religion, a major political party candidate for president has called for banning all Muslims who seek to enter the country.  And he has been applauded by many for it!

            The most valuable aspect of this chapter in Understanding Happiness is that Power (2016) suggests some ways in which atheists might gain the benefits that religion does seem to provide to individuals, with the hope that we will all eventually move beyond the bigoted conflict that religious societies often find themselves embroiled in.  He suggests that atheists consider the typical religious prescriptions against drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, and gluttony.  There are many secular organizations which atheists can join to provide a sense of community and/or purpose in their lives.  And finally, an alternative to prayer exists in practices like Buddhist meditation.

            So, we can acknowledge that religion may be beneficial to the well-being of many people, even though it is, technically, a delusion.  We can then examine what it is about religion that helps those people, and identify ways in which atheists can achieve the same benefits in their own lives.

Health and Illness

            Power (2016) addresses two issues in this particular chapter of his book, physical health and mental health.  Once again he first reviews a number of studies that seem to demonstrate the value of positive thinking (e.g., optimism, gratitude, positive reminiscing, etc.) in promoting better health.  However, he then addresses contrary studies, as well as the notorious debunking of Barbara Fredrickson’s 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotion as a beneficial goal (see Brown et al., 2013).  With regard to one of the more critically important diseases, cancer, he includes a quote that I will also present to you:


     No randomized clinical trial designed with survival as a primary endpoint and in which psychotherapy was not confounded with medical care has yielded a positive effect. (pg. 367; Coyne et al., 2007)


            Of greatest concern here is the danger that unreasonable, or unrealistic, positive thinking may result in avoiding necessary treatment (either medical or psychological).  And yet, sometimes a positive outlook does appear to be helpful; and a positive outlook can definitely be more psychologically satisfying.  So when might pessimism prove to be a better choice?  Power suggests that something called ‘defensive pessimism’ may be the key to preparing for and dealing with life’s challenges.  Rather than relying on some pie-in-the-sky illusion that all is well, or the satirical statements of a Prof. Pangloss that all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds (in Voltaire’s Candide; Voltaire, 1759/1959), we should instead deal directly with whatever we are faced with.

            But where does this leave us?  Sometimes a positive attitude is good, but sometimes we need to deal with reality.  So what then?  Power cites several studies which have demonstrated the advantage of flexibility in one’s reaction(s) to a challenge.  Indeed, cognitive inflexibility, or perseveration, is definitely recognized as a psychological problem, and is included in the definition of a personality disorder (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

            In conclusion, Power emphasizes the importance of flexibility in making life’s choices.  There are advantages to both positive and negative emotions, but those advantages are situational, and the situation may change with time.  When individuals gather relevant and accurate information, so that they might make realistic appraisals of the situation they find themselves in, and if they are then willing to make the right choice for the situation (i.e., cognitive flexibility), and if they have beforehand chosen to live a healthy lifestyle in general, then happiness or well-being will arise from time to time in their lives.  When it does, they should feel free to enjoy it.

* * *

            We are now ready to move into our discussion of applying positive psychological approaches within groups of people who are challenged in some way.  First, however, let me briefly point out that Power (2016) is by no means alone in critically challenging the claims of the field of positive psychology.  The final chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Disability is one in which Robert Cummins does the same.

            Cummins (2013) discusses evidence that subjective well-being is, like many other human conditions, maintained in a homeostatic fashion.  In other words, we protect ourselves from changes in either direction, and the set-point is largely determined by genetics (see our discussion above regarding the happiness formula [H = S + C + V] and the hedonic treadmill; Seligman, 2002).  Thus, it may be that applying positive psychological theory can only help those who are in homeostatic defeat, and even then other factors may limit its applicability.

            Nonetheless, if there are short term effects, or if some people may be helped, applying what we’ve learned about positive psychology may be worth the effort.  Over time, perhaps we’ll learn more about how to make it effective for all.


            Before taking a look at how positive psychology can be applied when considering and/or interacting with people in stigmatized groups, let’s consider the definition of stigma.  Stigma is a powerful social construction linked to placing value on social identities, and in the case of stigma those values are entirely negative.  It involves both recognizing a given group based on some distinguishing characteristic and subsequently devaluing those people.  Individuals who are stigmatized are considered deviant and are typically marginalized.  As wrong as stigmatizing others may seem, social stigma apparently exists within all societies.  Its function appears to involve self-esteem enhancement, control enhancement, and anxiety buffering for those individuals who stigmatize others (Dovidio et al., 2000).  In a more general sense, stigma serves the function of creating the social solidarity necessary for one group to maintain its identity by stigmatizing those who are “outsiders.”

            Although stigmatization appears to have weakened in the United States due to a dilution of the Protestant ethic (due to immigration and the blending of different cultures) and the rise of technology, it is likely to always be with us (Falk, 2001).  Among those who have traditionally been the target of stigma we have the mentally ill and mentally retarded, homosexuals, the obese, immigrants, the homeless, minorities, prostitutes, alcoholics and other drug addicts, criminals, the elderly, and the physically disabled (Falk, 2001; Goffman, 1963; Heatherton et al., 2000).

            People with physical disabilities are not only a commonly stigmatized group, they are a group that in one sense we will all join eventually.  Although we commonly think of physical disability in terms of someone requiring something like the use of a wheelchair, there are many types of physical disability.  One which all of us who live long enough will experience is that of old age, with its concomitant loss of physical vitality.  As for those who are physically disabled at earlier ages, the presence of their disability typically leads to nonequitable/dysfunctional interactions with nondisabled individuals.  When people without disabilities encounter the disabled, the nondisabled people often stare at, laugh at, joke about, overcompensate with feigned hospitality toward, or simply ignore the disabled (Hebl & Kleck, 2000).

            In a series of studies begun in the 1960s by Robert Kleck and colleagues, as well as subsequent studies conducted by others (see Hebl & Kleck, 2000), the dysfunctional nature of these interactions between the disabled and the nondisabled becomes abundantly clear.  When nondisabled individuals interacted with someone in a wheelchair (as opposed to someone who is not disabled) they were more aroused, they took longer to ask questions, they terminated the encounter more quickly, they conformed their personal opinions more readily to those of the disabled individual, they reduced their motor behavior and gestures, they spoke in simplistic terms, and they stood at greater speaking distances.  Indeed, the nondisabled individuals acted toward the disabled individuals very much like parents interact with children.  And if given the opportunity without confrontation, they simply avoided interacting with physically disabled people altogether.

            It has been suggested that research such as this is too artificial, and that in real-life encounters people with physical disabilities may develop strategies to compensate for being stigmatized.  However, when individuals with physical disabilities were interviewed by nondisabled individuals (as compared to being interviewed by another disabled person in a wheelchair), they also inhibited motor activity, avoided eye contact, and terminated the interaction more quickly.  Thus, rather than compensating for relational difficulties, individuals with physical disabilities often exacerbate the dysfunctional interactions they have with nondisabled individuals (Hebl & Kleck, 2000).

            How might people with physical disabilities work to reduce the effects of stigmatization?  There appear to be three basic approaches:  passing, requesting favors, and acknowledging.  Passing involves efforts to “pass” as nondisabled, by attempting to hide or downplay one’s disability.  While this approach may work occasionally, in can also be counterproductive, and can lead to a pervasive interpersonal strategy of withholding personal and social information that is unrelated to the disability.

            Given that nondisabled persons often avoid those who are disabled, asking for favors, even simple ones, can create an interaction.  This helps to draw in the nondisabled individuals, often leading to more favorable reactions toward those who are disabled, but it can also have the negative effect of reinforcing stereotypes about people who are disabled also being dependent and needing to be treated like children.

            The best strategy for creating healthy interactions and relationships appears to be acknowledging.  In this strategy, people with disabilities simply and honestly acknowledge their disability, particularly in ways that move the focus of the interaction away from the disability.  This allows both parties to quickly move past a potentially awkward moment.  Research has shown that when individuals with physical disabilities acknowledge their stigmas, nondisabled individuals view them in ways that are more receptive, open, and empathic, and they are more willing to make eye contact, continue conversations, and talk more about potentially sensitive issues (Goffman, 1963; Hebl & Kleck, 2000).

            As common as it may be to stigmatize others, there have been some very famous people throughout history who have achieved great things despite being disabled.  Thus, these individuals were able to overcome the effects of stigmatization to achieve lasting acclaim.  Henderson & Bryan (1984) put together a brief, but nonetheless fascinating, list of some people of whom they were aware.  From that list, the following names will most likely be recognized:

  • Aristotle (384-322 BC) was one of the greatest philosophers in history.  He stuttered.
  • Louis Braille (1800-1852) developed the Braille system of raised dots for blind people to read and write.  He was blind himself.
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was a renowned poetess.  She had a spinal injury.
  • Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), considered one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, and who ultimately became the Roman emperor, had epilepsy.
  • George Washington Carver (1864-1943) was a scientist and educator, best known for identifying an incredible variety of uses for the peanut.  He also stuttered.
  • Thomas A. Edison (1847-1930), perhaps the greatest inventor of all time, is best known for inventing the light bulb.  He was deaf.
  • Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a Nobel Prize winning author who was only partially sighted.
  • Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) was one of the greatest naval commanders (a British admiral).  He had one arm amputated and had sight in only one eye.
  • Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) verified that diseases were caused by germs and developed the process of pasteurization.  He was a paralytic.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the only U.S. President to be elected to 4 terms, was crippled by poliomyelitis, and his highly respected wife Anne Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was hard-of-hearing.

            Franklin Roosevelt presents a particularly interesting example.  Apparently he made every effort to avoid being photographed or filmed in any way that showed his disability, and the media made every effort to support him.  Thus, most people had no idea that the “leader of the free world” typically needed a wheelchair to get around.  On the one hand, this ignored who he really was as an individual and hid from the public an inspirational story; but on the other hand, his disability was not relevant to his ability to be president.  This latter point, that media coverage of people with disabilities should not address the disabilities if they are not relevant to the story at hand, is an important recommendation for portraying the disabled in the media (Riley, 2005).  Riley also suggests the importance of presenting stories about typical people with disabilities, as opposed to only portraying truly extraordinary people like those listed above.  But perhaps the most valuable recommendation made by Riley for those who are interviewing someone with a disability is to simply relax.  As noted above, with regard to terminology and the challenge of “political correctness,” if we could somehow avoid tripping all over our relationships, then those relationships would be genuine and meaningful.

            Another interesting point regarding the stigmatization of people who are exceptional was raised by Falk (2001).  Since people in America are all supposed to be created equal, those who excel are considered deviant, and thus are subject to stigmatization.  Today, this can perhaps be best observed in how the media swoops in and attacks any celebrity (actor/actress, musician, politician, etc.) who has some sort of downfall (drugs, corruption, infidelity, etc.).  But this is by no means just a modern occurrence.  In the Hagakure (“Hidden Among the Leaves”), Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote about this same concern.  One of the classic books on the duties of a samurai, the Hagakure was written between 1710 and 1716, and Tsunetomo had this to say about a man who was exceptionally intelligent and clever:


     …He thinks that everything can be handled through his own cleverness and intelligence.  There is nothing as offensive as intelligence and cleverness.  Right from the start people do not trust him, and he is not the sort of person with whom people can relax and whom they can take into their confidence.  By contrast, a person who seems to be not so clever, because he has substance, can be a retainer who really gets things done. (pg. 100; cited in Steben, 2008)

Positive Psychology and Disability

            Deformities and imperfections of our bodies, as lameness, crookedness, deafness, blindness, be they innate or accidental, torture many men:  yet this may comfort them, that those imperfections of the body do not a whit blemish the soul, or hinder the operations of it, but rather help and much increase it.  Thou art lame of body, deformed to the eye; yet this hinders not but that thou mayst be a good, a wise, upright, honest man.  (pg. 154; Burton, 1621/1927a)

* * *

            Words such as disabled, handicapped, impaired, challenged, and crippled, as well as many related terms, evoke strong emotions, controversy, and confusion.  There are numerous books on people with disabilities, coping with disabilities, raising children with disabilities, etc., but this group has largely been ignored in the cross-cultural studies that are so popular in the field of psychology.  Another meaningful trend in psychology is, of course, positive psychology, the focus on helping people to fulfill themselves and lead happier, meaningful lives.  It is interesting to note that there is common ground between these two topics.  Much of the information available on people with disabilities takes a decidedly positive approach, despite what some people may expect.

            Eastern philosophies, stemming from Yoga, Buddhism, and Daoism, emphasize mindfulness and acceptance.  For those with physical disabilities, it is not only important to be fully aware of one’s physical condition but also to be aware of what one can accomplish and be willing to try.  This is not simply about compensating; I am not suggesting that the physically disabled should only try to excel at non-physical tasks.  Quite the contrary!  Physically disabled people can still be physically active, and some have excelled in amazing and inspirational ways.  For those of us who are not extraordinary, there is still the possibility of achieving the best we are capable of achieving.

Historical Treatment of the Disabled

            In Understanding Disability, Jaeger & Bowman (2005) offer a concise history of how people with disabilities have been treated throughout history.  As far as ancient history is concerned, the reality is quite shocking.  Disabilities were seen as punishment by an angry god, and the birth of a disabled child was often viewed as a prophetic sign of impending doom.  At the height of Greek and Roman civilization it was commonly accepted to abandon disabled babies and allow them to die.  In the Greek city-state of Sparta it was mandated that such children would be killed.  Some people with disabilities were kept for amusement.  One famous example, Balbous Balaesus the Stutterer, was actually kept in a cage on the side of the road for the entertainment of passersby.  A special market existed for the sale of people with disabilities.

            The abuse of people with disabilities was also common in ancient China and pre-Columbian America.  2,000 years ago the Chinese created a term for disabled individuals which roughly translates as “disabled person, good for nothing.”  Today, the term has been replaced with one that roughly translates as “disabled but not useless.”  Similar words exist in the language in Brazil and Zimbabwe.  When the Code of Justinian was established in the year 533, by the Roman Emperor Justinian, it laid out a series of legal rights that many disabled people were not allowed to have.  Consequently, for over a millennium the legal systems of Europe denied social, legal, and educational rights to people with disabilities.  Indeed, many wealthy families in Italy, including some of the Roman Catholic popes, owned servants with disabilities for entertainment or sport (often facing the possibility of death; Jaeger & Bowman, 2005).

            As Europe entered the Renaissance, and later in America, there was little improvement.  During the Protestant Reformation both John Calvin and Martin Luther believed that people with mental disabilities should be classified as creations of Satan.  In 1679, in colonial America, Philip Nelson began teaching a child who was deaf.  Nelson was denounced by his local church, accused of blasphemy, and his life was threatened.  Thus, the people of America very nearly executed their first special education teacher.  Harvard University president Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather of Salem witch trials notoriety, helped popularize the belief that disabilities were heavenly wrath.  However, attitudes did begin to change in the 1700s.  In 1752, Benjamin Franklin, one of the most revered founding fathers of America, along with Thomas Bond founded the first general hospital providing care and rehabilitation for people with disabilities (Jaeger & Bowman, 2005).

            During the history of the United States there has been a very slow, but steady improvement in the protection of legal rights for people with disabilities.  In 1973 the United States finally passed federal law granting specific, affirmative legal rights to the disabled as part of the Rehabilitation Act.  Then, in 1990, the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  When President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law, he proclaimed, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”  However, the United States Supreme Court has issued a number of critical rulings which limit the conditions under which a person can be considered disabled and, therefore, deserving of protection under the ADA (Jaeger & Bowman, 2005).  Thus, the protection of legal rights for people with disabilities remains an ongoing process.

            An important trend in attitudes toward and treatment of people with disabilities has been a change in terminology that shifts the focus from the disability itself to the person.  Person-first terminology addresses the individual as primary, and then addresses the disability as an aspect of that person.  This approach endeavors to avoid stereotyping people with disabilities.  For example, rather than referring to a “disabled person,” refer to a “person with a disability.”  Rather than saying someone is “wheelchair bound,” they are a “wheelchair user.”  A person might be “hearing impaired,” rather than “deaf and dumb.”  The newer terminology not only attempts to put the focus on the person first, it also tries to avoid identifying the person in toto with their disability.  Thus, the term wheelchair bound may stigmatize an individual, and lead others to think they are totally helpless.  However, a person using a wheelchair may be quite capable of taking care of themselves in many situations, and they are likely to be fine intellectually.  Just consider the extraordinary case of Dr. Stephen Hawking (see, e.g., Hawking, 1988, 1993; Hawking & Mlodinow, 2005).  Almost completely paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Dr. Hawking has had an illustrious career in theoretical physics, and his brilliance has been compared to that of Albert Einstein.  Overall, it is considered that any language which dehumanizes or objectifies people with disabilities should be avoided.  (Jaeger & Bowman, 2005).


            I have had motor neurone [sic - British] disease for practically all my adult life.  Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work.  This is thanks to the help I have received from my wife, my children, and a large number of other people and organizations.  I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case.  It shows that one need not lose hope. (pg. 26; Hawking, 1993)


            Another interesting trend has been a form of defiant self-naming or reclaiming of the terminology by people with disabilities themselves.  They may refer to being a disabled person as a source of pride.  They can subvert traditional slurs by adopting those words themselves.  Thus, people with disabilities may refer to themselves as cripples or “crips.”  This led to the use of the affirmative slogan “Crip is hip.”  This movement to reclaim the language that has been used to define them is seen as an effort by people with disabilities to embrace a disability culture (Jaeger & Bowman, 2995).

Models for the Study of Disability

            There are two models that most people have relied on when studying disability:  the medical model and the social model.  The medical model focuses on disability as something a person has, which theoretically can, and should, be treated and cured.  The body is viewed as an object-like physiological system, subject to the rules of science.  While it may be true that physical disabilities are medical in nature, the same can not always be so easily said about mental/psychological disabilities.  Even in the case of physical disabilities, the medicalization of disability has received numerous critiques.  Perhaps the most significant critique is that medical doctors, particularly specialists, focus their attention on the medical condition, not the patient.  Indeed, there are many examples of situations in which medical staff ignore or even reject the reported condition of the patient.  This may be particularly true in the case of pain, which can not be seen or quantified by the medical staff (it depends entirely on the report of the patient).  As a consequence of this dismissive attitude (i.e., dismissive of the patient’s personal experience), the medical model of diagnosing and treating disability has become self-serving and disabling.  It has been suggested that many people are actually harmed (at least psychologically, if not also physically) by undergoing myriad exams and tests only to be labeled and treated as a commodity.  The treatment of people with disabilities has become a major industry, and the medical field looks to bring a wider group of patients (i.e., more business) into its domain, all the while appearing to be part of a society which now “cares” more about the people with disabilities (Barnes & Mercer, 2003; Byrom, 2001; Iezzoni, 2003; Longmore & Umansky, 2001; Marks, 1999; Potok, 2002; Thomson, 2001).

            The social model of disability suggests that problems arise as the result of disabling circumstances in the world around us.  It begins with an important set of definitions for impairment, disability, and handicap (we will discuss terminology a bit more below).

  • Impairmentis any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function, such as the loss of part or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.
  • Disability is any restriction or lack of ability to perform activities within what is considered the normal range, particularly when it is caused by contemporary social organization which excludes people with disabilities by failing to take into account their impairments.
  • Handicaprefers to disadvantages resulting from impairment or disability that limit or prevent fulfilling what are considered normal roles for the individual.

            (see Marks, 1999; Swain et al., 2003)

            From this perspective, impairments are still recognized as medical conditions.  Disabilities or handicaps (the above definitions blend some differences between the World Health Organization and the now defunct Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation), however, are reconstructed as the result of social and political processes.  In other words, disability is no longer something that someone has, but rather something that is done to someone.  For those of us who have become disabled after being able-bodied, the value of this perspective is quite clear.  I remember very well the day I decided to get a handicapped placard for my car.  I had helped to move some equipment at the gym in preparation for a major gymnastics meet (that my son would be competing in).  Later that day I had to go to the store, and when I got out of the car my hips were so stiff and in so much pain that I almost could not walk.  Thankfully, I benefited from changes that have occurred over the years.  If the store had not had a curb cut/ramp I would not have been able to go in.  I would not have been able to step up onto a curb!  I recently learned that curb cuts were championed by Ed Roberts (1939-1995), who some consider to have been the father of the disability rights movement in America, along with efforts to bring disability services to even the most impaired individuals (Scotch, 2001; also see Iezzoni, 2003).  Today, there is an international center for people with disabilities which was built in Roberts’ honor in Berkeley, CA, bringing together a wide variety of organizations involved in the independent living movement (their website is www.edrobertscampus.org).

            The social model of disability has focused on the rights of individuals with disabilities and has been used to argue that the exclusion of the disabled has gone on far too long (Marks, 1999; Swain et al., 2003; Thomson, 2001).  Although changes have certainly been made, to some extent problems still exist.  One reason for continued problems is continued prejudice and discrimination, which is often referred to as ableism (as with racism or sexism).  Ableism leads to the devaluation of the disabled, and results in social attitudes that it is better to walk than be in a wheelchair, better to talk than use sign language, better to read print than Braille, etc.  As a result, certain beliefs become common, such as:

  • If you have one disability you probably have more - a person in a wheelchair is probably deaf and mentally retarded as well.
  • Disabled people are angry at the world, selfish, and want more than they deserve.
  • They depend on the government for financial support.
  • Parents who abuse disabled children were driven to it and should not be condemned.
  • People with disabilities have sinned and are being punished.
  • People with disabilities are incapable of taking care of their own affairs, living on their own, or making their own decisions.

            (from pp. 9-10; Johnson, 2006)

            It is generally accepted in psychology that bringing groups together can help to reduce or eliminate prejudice.  However, this is not quite correct.  In his classic The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport (1979; first published in 1954) reported that programs designed for contact and acquaintance only work when the groups are brought together in the spirit of mutual respect and can work toward a common goal.  Thus, when something like a disability awareness day is held, it must be done carefully.  For example, a common activity during such days is the disability simulation, such as having people ride around in a wheelchair or wear a blindfold.  The first problem with these simulations is that they reduce the person to their disability.  In addition, the person in the simulation knows that they will be ending it soon.  A person with a disability will not be ending it soon, they can not cheat as some people in simulations may, and they have adapted to their disability in many ways (perhaps throughout their entire life).  It is also true that some disabilities simply can’t be simulated well.  Thus, a poorly planned disability awareness day may not engender mutual respect.  Mary Johnson (2006) suggests that a successful disability awareness day is one which increases the understanding of ableism on the part of the participants.  Ideally, it is “one in which participants learn from disabled people how to become allies in the work to create a more equitable, more accessible society” (pg. 34; Johnson, 2006; also see Marks, 1999).

Early Studies on the Psychology of People with Physical Disabilities

            Pintner et al. (1941) examined the environmental and sociocultural factors that influence the personality development of children with disabilities.  It is safe to say that most psychologists would agree that individuals begin adjusting to their environments the moment they are born, and that adjustment continues throughout life (though some would say the earliest adjustments are by far the most important).  The sociocultural factors are perhaps the most important, since they determine the patterns of behavior that are expected within a given community.  Thus, the environment that each child grows up in, and has to adapt to, has already undergone a long-term cultural adaptation that lays down a limited number of situational expectations.  Thus, the role we play in life, and the roles played by those with whom we interact and from whom we learn, are determined largely by social expectancy:


            In the case of physically handicapped persons, the nature of the social participation of the individual is influenced in a profound way by the manner in which society indicates what the role and status of his behavior should be.  The fat child expects that he will be the butt of jokes and the object of comments on the part of persons in his home, in school, and in his neighborhood.  The crippled child knows that he will meet with oversentimentality and pity; the blind child anticipates oversolicitude and maudlin sympathy from the members of his environment. (pp. 6-7; Pintner et al., 1941)


            In their review of studies on the emotional adjustment of “crippled” children, Pintner et al. (1941) found mixed results.  Although some studies suggested that these children are, on average, emotionally maladjusted, other studies found the children to fall within the normal range of emotional adjustment.  They decided that there was not enough information to draw any meaningful conclusions.  There did seem to be, however, a significant degree of social handicap, as compared to either educational or vocational handicap.  Thus, the primary difficulty facing the physically handicapped appeared to be social, as opposed to their ability to gain an education or pursue an appropriate occupation.  Perhaps this would explain the additional observation that these children generally lacked initiative in school, and were relatively docile.  They seldom participated in their own rehabilitation/therapy, simply following the instructions given to them by their case workers.

            Roger Barker, Beatrice Wright, and Mollie Gonick (1946) conducted a thorough and detailed review of the studies available on the psychology of disability for people who they considered crippled, covering a few of the same studies as Pintner et al. (1941), but also covering additional material.  As above, they also found that there was no clear relationship between being physically disabled and having psychological problems as compared to a normal control group.  However, there were some interesting findings within the details of the studies.  Children tended to be less well adjusted if their disability was severe and if they were considered to be overprotected and indulged by their family.  These variables confound one another, however, since more severely handicapped children are probably more likely to be overprotected and indulged.  A more curious finding was that if information was drawn from interviews, observations, or third party reports (such as family member offering their perspective) then there was a greater likelihood to rate physically disabled people as maladjusted (Barker et al., 1946).  This may well reflect a stereotyped expectation on the part of able-bodied individuals, who assume that the physically disabled must be maladjusted, so they see what they believe must be true.

            Supporting the notion that there is a tendency to find expected psychological problems in the physically disabled, Barker and his colleagues (1946) have found an imbalance in the descriptions of maladjustment and good adjustment.  Whereas only three general aspects of good adjustment were described in the literature, there were 12 different and specific categories of maladjustment.  Included among those tendencies found in some people with physical disabilities are social withdrawal, fearful behavior, feelings of inferiority, anxiety, paranoia, and craving affection and attention.  These symptoms of maladjustment appear quite commonly among those people with physical disabilities who do suffer psychologically as a result of their disability (or rather, the social circumstances of their life consequent to their disability).  Although there appear to be weak correlations with duration, severity, and unpredictability with regard to the disability, the particular type of disability is apparently unimportant.

            Heinrich Meng was a psychoanalyst who believed that although there may be environmental factors which tend to distort the personality of those with disabilities, there are also factors operating at the same time which can mitigate the distortion.  Since the disabled individual is different, this can offer a helpful sense of narcissism, or the feeling that one is special.  A most serious problem arises, however, if the disabled child can not play.  Meng considered play to be a very important part of child development in the shift from the pleasure-principle to the reality-principle.  He also considered overcompensation to be a problem, but Meng suggests that it becomes a problem only when the child feels unloved, or that love has been withdrawn.  He then suggests that the primary role for parents (and we may extend that role to family and friends for an adult) is to alleviate the child’s anxiety.  An important aspect of that role is to provide appropriate opportunities for the child to play.  Overall, Meng had this to say:


            We do not think that the normal human being is the one whose motor and mental abilities function effectively, but he is the one whose psychological activities run in a harmonious way; he conquers life anew each day.  This is possible for the handicapped in his own way, and it can be aided by mental hygiene.  ‘Everyone must carve his life out of the wood he has.’ (pg. 87; cited in Barker et al., 1946)


            Some 14 years later, Beatrice Wright published her own book, Physical Disability - A Psychological Approach, with an introduction by Dr. Barker (Wright, 1960).  Although she added valuable insight to our understanding of the psychology of disability, the major contribution of her book was an effort to move rehabilitation psychology toward being an applied science.  We will return to rehabilitation later, for now let us examine the contribution of this book to our understanding of individuals with disabilities.


            One might suppose that a stigmatizing, underprivileged social position would predispose the individual toward feeling inferior as a person.  As a matter of fact, feelings of inferiority are mentioned with considerable frequency by experts and laymen alike as characterizing disabled groups…However, when we turn to the research literature on the actual feelings of persons with disabilities, a far less clear-cut picture is found…No matter how the studies are grouped, the data cannot be ordered so that scores of inferiority are in any systematic way related to disability or to such aspects of disability as type, duration, or degree. (pp. 51-52; Wright, 1960)


            Following nearly a decade and a half of additional research, Wright still finds no evidence to suggest that physical disability results in predictable psychological maladjustment.  She addresses this conundrum by arguing that the alleged connection between disability and feelings of inferiority has been oversimplified.  For example, she considers the effects of the severity of a disability in the following manner.  If a child has a mild disability, we might expect their adjustment to be easier than that of a child with a severe disability.  However, the child with the mild disability is almost normal, so they may try to hide or deny their disability, thus avoiding the process of adjustment.  The child with the severe disability must deal with it, and given proper social support they can, and subsequently they become psychologically well adjusted.  Similarly, someone with a disability who constantly suffers devaluation and social stigmatization must adapt their value systems to cope.  So, the more they are mistreated, the more likely they are to at least try developing coping strategies.  Thus, we cannot make simple predictions about the psychological effects of having a physical disability.  We must instead examine the social environment in which the individual is living (Wright, 1960).

            To this end, Wright began to examine the development of the self-concept, an important part of which is the body-image.  This is a complex process in which the infant/child first differentiates the world outside as something different than itself, and then integrates its experiences into an understanding of what, and then who, the child is in relation to others.  So, the developing concept of self begins with all of the sensory experiences of the baby, and then continues with what the child learns about himself or herself through the reactions of and interactions with those people the child encounters.  As the child attempts to integrate its experiences, they will undergo a process of self-evaluation.  Wright tells a moving story about a boy named Raymond who could no longer walk due to infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis).  On the first day of school other children made fun of him.  But Raymond did not realize they were making fun of him, because Raymond was relatively well-adjusted and had a positive self-image.  When he came to realize the other boys were making fun of him, it hurt terribly, and he ended up physically attacking one of the boys.  The incident had a devastating effect on his self-esteem.  According to Wright, the single attribute of his physical disability now became the determining factor in his self-evaluation and self-esteem, and it was very negative.

            Wright described this as a three-step process.  First, self-evaluation dominates perception.  Second, there is incongruence between self-evaluation and outside events (Raymond had a positive self-concept, but then other boys made fun of him). And finally, the single attribute comes to dominate the self-evaluation (Raymond feels inferior; “A few ill-mannered boys had implanted in me the seed of shame from which I was to conceive a monster” [pg. 146; Wright, 1960]).  Of course, Raymond might have avoided these feelings of shame and inferiority under more fortunate supportive circumstances, but the likelihood of coping with such a traumatic incident depends on what Wright refers to as the self-connection and status-value gradients.  The self-connection gradient refers to how intimately we identify some aspect of our body-image with the central core of our personality, or Self.  For example, facial disfigurement is typically more difficult to cope with than the loss of a limb, because when we think of a person we think of what their face looks like.  Similarly, an athlete who is paralyzed may find it particularly difficult to adjust, because impressive physical actions helped to define who they were in society.  The status-value gradient refers to how highly we regard an attribute with respect to our self-esteem.  Considering an athlete once again, a runner would be likely to place particular value on their legs, and might adapt much more easily to the loss of an arm as opposed to being paralyzed and losing the loss of their legs.

            In terms of the age at which a disability occurs, and whether it is congenital or happens later in life, Wright argues that there simply is no conclusion as to what represents a more challenging situation.  With a congenital disability, it may seem that the person never has to adjust their self-concept to the disability.  But it is still possible that a moment may occur in life when the disability suddenly becomes an issue (such as Raymond’s first day of school, noted above).  An adult who becomes disabled may very well have to alter their self-concept, but there may be other aspects of the self-concept that help to maintain an integrated and healthy sense of self despite the disability.  Wright offers some helpful recommendations for raising children, which apply to adults as well.  Overall, she suggests open communication in order to foster a realistic understanding of one’s condition.  Negative and devaluating aspects of the disability should be discussed, along with ways to cope.  Wright referred to this process as realization and interpersonal acceptance.  The person with the disability then needs to know that they are loved unconditionally, in spite of their disability.  This should help to alleviate negative aspects of the self-connection gradient.  Similarly, the support of family and friends can help to alleviate the status-value gradient, by emphasizing that the individual is valued for the positive attributes they bring into those relationships.  Most importantly, Wright suggests that if one is brought face-to-face with their disability in a hostile and rejecting environment the results can be devastating, and it can greatly interfere with future opportunities for positive self integration:


            The resistance against positive change in the self-concept is especially interesting since it runs counter to what would seem to be the wishes of the person.  Would not everyone rather feel better about himself?  The resistance, however, is simply one of the consequences of the integrating process.  Once self-abnegation involving the total person has taken place, then the old and new events tend to be interpreted in harmony with a negative self-concept.  Raymond, for example, could no longer really think of his performance as accomplishments because such an evaluation, which previously had fitted in well with his high self-regard, now had nothing to which it could be anchored…The therapeutic problem involves identifying the worthy aspects of the upsetting characteristic in question, of giving them sufficient weight to effect a change in self-concept, and of reintegrating the negative features accordingly.  This process may be designated as the principle of positive identification.  (pg. 148; Wright, 1960)


            Twenty-three years after writing her book, Wright published a second edition (1983).  There are many changes in the book, not the least of which is the title:  Physical Disability - A Psychosocial Approach.  The shift in emphasis from ‘psychological’ to ‘psychosocial’ was made in anticipation of today’s social model of studying disability and disability rights, though Wright was already dealing considerably with social issues in her first edition.  Perhaps the most valuable contribution of her second edition is a list of principles which Wright said had guided her work in rehabilitation.  It was her desire that they should be examined, improved, and kept in the forefront of our commitment to furthering our understanding of the psychology of people with disabilities and our efforts to improve the study of rehabilitation as an applied science.  There are a total of 20 guiding principles, including:


  • Every individual needs respect and encouragement; the presence of a disability, no matter how severe, does not alter these fundamental rights.
  • The severity of a handicap can be increased or diminished by environmental conditions.
  • The assets of the person must receive considerable attention in the rehabilitation effort.
  • The significance of a disability is affected by the person’s feelings about the self and his or her situation.
  • The active participation of the client in the planning and execution of the rehabilitation program is to be sought as fully as possible.
  • It is essential that society as a whole continuously and persistently strives to provide the basic means toward the fulfillment of the lives of all its inhabitants, including those with disabilities.
  • People with disabilities, like all citizens, are entitled to participate in and contribute to the general life of the community.

           (pp. xi-xvi; Wright, 1983)

Perspectives on Living with Physical Disabilities

            Lisa Iezzoni (2003) has written a marvelous book entitled When Walking Fails, and she included a chapter on how people feel about losing the ability to walk.  A professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Dr. Iezzoni interviewed 119 people during her research for this book.  She quotes them often, lending their personal voices to her work.  This seems to be something of a trend, and may represent a backlash against the social model of disability which focuses entirely on the disabling bias of society and has been accused of ignoring the reality of people’s individual experiences with being disabled.  The fact is that people with disabilities really do have difficulties, such as being unable to walk.  Very few, if any, people would rather not be able to walk.

            One of the most interesting aspects of reading the chapter on feelings is the interplay between maintaining a positive attitude and recognizing just how difficult an impairment sometimes makes one’s life.  As we have seen, there is no overall difference in personality between people who are able-bodied and those who are disabled.  We all face challenges, and we all react differently, differently both from one another and to each unique situation we face.  Still, there are some common reactions to developing mobility difficulties, including:  not knowing your body anymore, a loss of independence, loneliness and isolation, depression, and anger.  At the same time, some people feel that they have found a strength they didn’t know they had.  Mostly, the people Iezzoni interviewed just talked about getting on with life:


            While bodies and external identities (e.g., career, relationships) clearly can change, fundamental inner beliefs about self remain intact:  independent, self-reliant, stoic, autonomous…But with mobility difficulties, the strategies required to be independent, self-reliant, stoic, and autonomous inevitably change…New tactics for getting through each day can alter how people interact with others and how they see their role in life.  (pg. 78; Iezzoni, 2003)


            There is another wonderful book which provides a wide array of perspectives on the diversity of disability in a collection of fascinating personal stories.  A Matter of Dignity by Andrew Potok (2002) contains eight chapters about people who have dedicated their lives to helping the physically disabled.  Many of them are disabled themselves, but not all.  The various chapters include, for example, disability rights activists, scholars, a computer engineer, and a man who specializes in making and fitting prosthetic legs.  In each chapter Potok presents numerous personal stories and experiences (both his own and those of the subjects of the chapter).  The most interesting chapter for me was the result of a coincidence.  Potok, who is blind and currently has a dog named Tobias, went to revisit the main campus of Seeing Eye, and writes about and interviews their training manager Pete Lang.  Seeing Eye happens to be in Morristown, New Jersey.  My grandparents lived in Morristown, and when I asked my mother if I ever did, she said I lived there briefly when I was a baby.  She also said they enjoyed watching the Seeing Eye dogs train, and considered raising one of the puppies.  One of my fondest memories as a child was going to a toy store in Morristown named the Dog Pound.  I also had occasion to meet a Seeing Eye dog one weekend while ice climbing with Erik Weihenmayer (see below).  Now I’m going to have to find time to get back to Morristown in order to watch some Seeing Eye dogs train, and see if I can still find my grandparents old house without having to ask for directions (which may prove difficult - it has been a long time since they both passed away).

            In one of his more poignant stories, Potok relates a conversation with a friend named Danny who had his leg amputated below the knee after a motorcycle accident.  Since the results were unsatisfactory, the doctors decided to amputate again, above the knee:


            “It seems not to have taken you long to get over it.”
            “No choice,” he says.
            “What do you mean ‘no choice’?  Some people take a lifetime.  You should be proud.”
            “Proud?”  He gets a little testy.  “What were my options, for Christ’s sake?  You should know that.  You either kill yourself or you damn well get on with it.  If there’s no real choice, it’s not bravery.”…He hops over to his old, ill-fitting leg, standing in a corner of the room.  He puts it in place and, not securing it properly, hobbles outside, Tobias and I following.
            (pg. 100; Potok, 2002)

Rehabilitation and Coping

            As rehabilitation teams begins their work, a few simple rules should be followed to maintain a secure and helpful atmosphere.  According to Ayrault (2001), the cardinal rule is to ensure the disabled person’s dignity and modesty.  The staff should avoid using infantile language, and no matter what the requirements of physical therapy or medical treatment, they must remember that they are working with a person.  Positive rapport should be maintained between the disabled person and the team, and parents should be encouraged to seek help and, perhaps, consider family therapy.  The rehabilitation team must anticipate several behaviors that can cause problems, including:  aggression, daydreaming, withdrawal, temper tantrums, and using the disability as an excuse.  While a few of these may be much more likely with children, it is a possibility that they could all occur with an adult as well.  The staff must also be careful to avoid allowing their own unresolved conflicts to interfere with the patient’s adjustment, such as permitting too much patient dependency should the patient become passive (Siller, 1977).

            Roessler & Bolton (1978) suggest a comprehensive “behavioral coping” model.  They believe that such a model should focus on the person/situation fit and how their disability disrupts that fit, it should be an asset model emphasizing abilities (not disabilities), and it should emphasize skills and behaviors the individual needs to contain the effects of the disability, broaden the range of the individual’s values, and avoid eliminating behavioral potential.  They further suggest that parts of previous models can prove useful in this more comprehensive model.  The survival model contributes the importance of the desire to live.  The engineering model takes into consideration maximizing the individual’s potential.  And the positive striving model emphasizes values important for identifying future directions in rehabilitation and in life.  Overall, the behavior coping model emphasizes the individual’s ability to manage their own environment with minimal discomfort to self and others.

            Cristian (2006) has offered a list of some practical coping strategies that can be followed to assist one’s rehabilitation team.  He suggests that people should express their concerns, be active participants, carry a notebook at all times, gather information, allow themselves to deny their situation for a while, maintain a positive and hopeful attitude (you have survived), be realistic, focus on small tasks and new ways to perform them, confront their fears, and form a quality relationship with at least one therapist.  These steps can help a person with a disability to get the most out of their rehabilitation team, provided they also remain open to the suggestions of the team.  Open, honest dialogue is the best way to address concerns.  Wright (1960, 1983) has emphasized the importance of actively involving the person with the disability in their own rehabilitation.  When children are involved, it becomes important to involve the parents as participants, and to come up with ways to motivate children.  For example, can a task be modified so that it becomes part of an activity that the child already likes to do?  Attention must be paid to the child’s attitudes toward disability and rehabilitation and whether the staff is friendly toward the child.  And, is the child experiencing success or failure?  Once again there is an emphasis here on two-way communication.  The rehabilitation team has expertise and general experience, but only the person with the disability knows their own feelings and comfort level.

            Winchell (1995) also offered a list of steps that one can take to help oneself through the grief that may come and go in waves.  She believes there is no single timetable, grieving is uniquely personal, and the mourning process cannot be forced.  Nonetheless, she recommends the following as concrete steps that can be taken:

  • Be good to yourself - take time to adjust, have compassion for yourself
  • Nourish yourself with healing relationships - sharing the grieving process can be very helpful, children and pets can remind you of the joy and wonder life still holds
  • Seek out other people with similar disabilities - they can be an invaluable resource
  • Nourish yourself spiritually - your heart is likely to be especially open to deeply questioning your values and purpose
  • Care for yourself physically - don’t focus on the disability and neglect your overall health
  • Fully experience your feelings - be honest with yourself about sadness, anger, resentment, and frustration
  • Let go of “How Life Should Be” - this doesn’t mean giving up on dreams, but rather embrace your life as it is now
  • Accept Loss - but don’t confuse acceptance with approval
  • Develop a sense of closure - this can lead to greater peace of mind

            (pp. 114-118; Winchell, 1995)

Religion, Spirituality, and Coping

            One of the questions often asked following the occurrence of a disability is “Why me?”  Spirituality offers answers beyond medical statistics or actuarial tables.  One of the most important things that spirituality offers is hope.  It can also infuse our lives with a larger, all-pervasive sense of meaning and purpose.  For women in particular, the development of faith appears to have a positive impact on well-being and coping (Robinson et al., 1995).  And yet, in Western societies there is an emphasis on putting one’s ‘faith’ in medicine.  Vash (1981) suggests that an ideal situation would be one in which we combined the technological advantages of the Western world with the spiritual values that we commonly associate with the East.  Even here in America, where we have an odd sense of separation of church and state, rules were changed by law for Medicare/Medicaid home healthcare beneficiaries so that attending church services did not put their benefits in jeopardy (Iezzoni, 2003).

            It is probably not possible to overestimate the value of recognizing meaning in one’s life.  In one of the most famous and extraordinary books ever written, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (1946/1992) described how his belief that his life had meaning helped him to survive the Nazi Concentration Camps that claimed the lives of his parents, his brother, and his wife.  People with severe disabilities have reported that similar beliefs have helped them to cope with their disabilities and move forward (see Vash, 1981).

            Spirituality can also help one to experience both compassion and forgiveness.  Feeling compassion for oneself is not the same thing as self-pity.  Self-pity implies that you think of yourself as less than others.  Compassion is part of the healing process, it helps to strengthen one’s self-esteem.  It also helps with facing reality, and recognizing the challenges that lie ahead.  Compassion also opens your heart to nonjudgmental acceptance and forgiveness.  It is most important to forgive oneself, for any causes, circumstances, results, or responses related to the disability.  If others were somehow involved (and medical staff who save people’s lives may be blamed for ‘failing’ to save a lost limb, for example), they must be forgiven as well.  Otherwise you deny yourself peace, and may be plagued by self-blame and guilt (Winchell, 1995).

            Cultural values interact with the experience of disability in many ways, both positive and negative, and they can contradict our expectations based on selected philosophies from the oversimplified concepts of East vs. West.  The Bible specifically disqualifies disabled people from being priests.  Hindus believe in Karma, suggesting that congenital defects are punishment for bad acts in a previous life.  The Trobriand Islanders believe that afflictions are caused by their enemies through sorcery.  On the other hand, in modern Turkey, people who are blind are indispensible at religious ceremonies and funerals.  Clairvoyants were typically blind throughout Greek history, and many Koreans believe that people who are blind have an inner vision which is held in high esteem.  Perhaps most surprising, is that even gods can be ‘crippled’:  Wieland, the Nordic/Anglo-Saxon god of blacksmiths (aka, Wayland, Volund, and associated with the Roman god Vulcan), was lame because he has been hamstrung by a king who kept him captive for a time (Willis, 2006; Wright, 1983), and the Norse god Tyr had only one hand, the other having been bitten off by the great wolf Fenrir (Dougherty, 2013; Guerber, 2014; Martin, 1991; Willis, 2006).

            The recognition that spirituality may play an important role in coping with disability is by no means new.  The quote at the beginning of this text, written by Robert Burton in 1621, declares that the soul can not be blemished, and that physical disabilities can not affect one’s ability to be a good person (Burton, 1621/1926, 1621/1927a,b).  Likewise, some 2,500 years ago, Gotama Buddha realized the Four Noble Truths, beginning with the truth that all human life is suffering, and ending with the truth that there is a way to alleviate that suffering.  Whether you are religious, spiritual, or neither, you can still be true to yourself:


            By following your inner voice, you may discover you have profound wisdom from which to draw.  This should give you a quiet satisfaction and a sense of being connected to something greater than your everyday concerns; it should keep you from feeling alone in a cold, uncaring universe. (pg. 209; Winchell, 1995)

Ethnicity and the Ability to Cope

            Ethnic minorities face a number of difficulties due to prejudice and stereotypes surrounding their ethnicity which then magnify the difficulties they face due to their disability (Henderson & Bryan, 1984; Iezzoni, 2003; Swain et al., 2003).  Many members of ethnic minority groups live in poverty, lacking adequate housing, nutrition, and medical care.  If they work, it is often difficult labor which can be hard on the body.  If they obtain medical care, the health care practitioners often don’t know whether certain types of care are culturally sensitive, or they may assume that extended minority families prefer to ‘take care of their own.’  When the stigmatization of being both an ethnic minority and disabled are combined, there is a distinct possibility of extreme negative self-devaluation.  This can lead to loss of emotional stability, loss of sustained personal pleasure, and loss of physical and economic independence (Henderson & Bryan, 1984).

            Black children face a most significant difficulty very early in life:  high infant mortality rates and a much higher chance of losing their mother during childbirth.  Due to inner city poverty, where many Blacks live, educational opportunities lag far behind those typically available to White children with disabilities.  For many Hispanics, the culture of machismo, or the expectation that men will be strong, leads those who are disabled to try hiding their physical disabilities so they are not seen as weak.  Native Americans are perhaps the most poverty stricken group in the United States, and many Asian Americans also suffer from poverty.  In addition, Asian Americans are taught to be inconspicuousness, and if they disappoint their family there are powerful feelings of shame and guilt.  Thus, it may be particularly difficult for them to request assistance when their disability requires it (Henderson & Bryan, 1984).

            Fortunately, there are also some cultural aspects of ethnic minority groups that assist individuals with disabilities (Henderson & Bryan, 1984).  Extended families with important kinship bonds provide support for both disabled individuals and their caretakers.  For Blacks and Hispanics, their typically strong Christian faith is an additional source of support and comfort, as well as a means for offering hope to those with disabilities.  Asian folk medicine and philosophy has profound Chinese influences, including Daoism.  Daoism emphasizes balance, the importance of which is seen in the beginning of the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

     Under Heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
     All can know good as good only because there is evil.
     Therefore having and not having arise together.
     Difficult and easy complement each other.
     Long and short contrast each other;
     High and low rest upon each other;
     Voice and sound harmonize each other;
     Front and back follow one another.
          (Lao Tsu, c600 B.C./1989)

            According to this philosophy, there can be no one who is able-bodied without those who are disabled.  And finally, there is a quite curious advantage related to ethnicity and rehabilitation.  According to Ludwig & Adams (1977), a substantially higher proportion of ethnic minorities satisfactorily complete their rehabilitation program.  They attribute this to the subordinate role adopted by minorities due to their social position.  Thus, they are more likely to comply with the instructions of the rehabilitation team.

            It has been shown that having a disability is viewed as more negative than being either a woman or an ethnic minority; this perspective was shared by a black woman with a disability interviewed for a study on disabled woman (see Henderson & Bryan, 1984).  In order to work well with disabled ethnic minorities, Henderson & Bryan (1984) consider it essential to establish trust.  Both verbal and non-verbal communication need to convey acceptance and respect, and an honest effort must be made to understand the different customs that may be important within different cultural groups.  For example, when helping a disabled person you may be expected to sit down during a home visit, or to shake hands without hesitation.  Some cultures consider it bad manners to stare at someone, so the person you are talking to may not look back at you.  It appears to be an advantage if someone helping ethnic minorities with disabilities has few ego-centered thoughts during their interactions with the disabled individual.  If the client is given the best opportunity for social adjustment, with the least chance of disillusionment, there is a real prospect for bridging the gap between the helper and the client.  The possibility then exists for a meaningful and helpful relationship to form (Henderson & Bryan, 1984).

Exercise, Recreation, and Coping with Disability

            As early as 1946, Barker et al. (1946, 1953) recognized the need for providing children with disabilities an opportunity for playing.  This is a natural activity necessary for the healthy development of children, and parents of disabled children must pay careful attention to providing appropriate activities.  More than just an opportunity for fun, play allows children an opportunity to exercise and develop their motor skills.  Barker and his colleagues also point out that organized play activities in hospitals benefit not only the children, but the medical staff as well.  In addition, playing can help to relieve stress and it can be very useful in therapy, especially with young patients who can not communicate well.  In fact, play itself can be a therapeutic activity, and is not necessarily limited to children (Ayrault, 2001; Sobsey, 1994; Vash, 1981; Winchell, 1995):


            Undergoing the crisis of amputation can make life seem so serious.  You and your spouse may feel there is so much to do between normal household upkeep, child care, medically related appointments, and physical therapy that you neglect to make time for fun.  This is a big mistake!  You may think you can’t afford the time to play, but the truth is you can’t afford not to play…Make time to relax and revitalize yourselves… (pg. 272; Winchell, 1995)


            For older children and adults, play typically becomes some type of athletic activity, such as physical fitness training.  Studies have shown that physical fitness training can lead to enhanced self-esteem, increase social effectiveness, fewer behavioral problems, and better physical functioning.  Roessler & Bolton (1978) reviewed several studies that examined coordinated physical training programs for the physically disabled in the 1970s.  Although these studies found improvements in physical fitness, they did not necessarily lead to improvements in personal adjustment.  However, more recent studies have shown that important components of whether or not participating in sports is beneficial include the desire of the disabled athlete to continue being active in a sport and their motivation to be more competitive.  As dramatic advances continue to be made in the quality of prosthetic devices, these opportunities are growing for many people with disabilities.  Even for those who are not competitive athletes, improved physical fitness helps with a variety of daily activities, stress, and overall health (Cristian, 2006; Robinson et al., 1995; Winchell, 1995).

            Sports and recreation can add a great deal of pleasure to one’s life.  Of course, finding an activity that one enjoys is important.  Fortunately, a wide variety of recreational activities and sports are available to people with disabilities.  For those who use wheelchairs, options include basketball, tennis, bowling, archery, horseback riding, and track and field.  For amputees, or those who are blind or deaf, options include swimming, golf, and skiing.  And just about anyone can enjoy fishing (Cruzic, 1982; Winchell, 1995).  Suffice it to say that with the proper help and motivation, and perhaps a little ingenuity, nearly any activity can be adapted for someone with a physical disability (see Disability Sport and Recreation Resources, 3rd Ed., by Paciorek & Jones, 2001).

            For people with disabilities who practice the martial arts, pain, discomfort, and frustration may be inevitable.  But the tradition of the Abhidhamma helps us understand that we can still move forward, learn from our experiences, accept them, and try again (Olendzki, 2008).  The widely respected author and Professor of Medicine Emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed a program based on mindfulness meditation for treating stress, included a very interesting subtitle to one of his books, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Kabat-Zinn, 1990).  There is wisdom within the body, for those who are willing to experience their body, rather than just taking it for granted.  As Kabat-Zinn points out, making a personal commitment to working with the very stress and pain that is causing suffering may be even more important for people with chronic illness or disability.  It may be one way of regaining some control over the condition of your life.


            As he sat there, the housefather Nakulapitar addressed the Exalted One, saying: ‘Master, I am a broken-down old man, aged … I am sick and always ailing …’
            ‘True it is, true it is, housefather, that your body is weak and cumbered … Where, housefather, thus you should train yourself: “Though my body is sick, my mind shall not be sick.”
            (pp. 1-2; Kindred Sayings; Woodward, 1975)

Athletes with Physical Disabilities

            Alfred Adler’s studies on inferiority began with physical problems, what he called organ inferiority (Adler, 1917).  Most students of Adler look past that medical beginning, and focus instead on the psychological inferiorities that children experience during development.  However, there are many people with organ inferiority, or what we more commonly refer to as disabilities, handicaps, or “challenges.”  There may be some debate as to which term is preferred, but here I will use the terms disability and handicap as presented in Warren Rule’s book Lifestyle Counseling for Adjustment to Disability (Rule, 1984).  In his summary of previous research, Rule adopts the definition of a disability as a “relatively severe chronic impairment of function” that occurs as the result of a congenital defect, disease, or an accident.  Accordingly, disability refers to actual physical, mental, or emotional impairments that become a handicap only if they cause lowered self-assessment, reduced activity, or limited opportunities.  When disabilities become a handicap, they can affect the individual’s entire style of life.  Thus, Rule brought together a group of therapists trained in Individual Psychology, and published the aforementioned book on using lifestyle counseling for people with disabilities that have led to handicaps.

            However, not everyone with a disability develops a handicap.  Instead, some individuals become truly inspirational by the way in which they live their lives in spite of their disability, or rather, as if they simply were not disabled.  Erik Weihenmayer (2001; see also Stoltz & Weihenmayer, 2006) was born with retinoscheses, a degenerative eye disease, which slowly destroyed his retinas, leaving him blind by the age of 13.  In high school, Erik spent a month one summer at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts.  The summer camp included a weekend of rock climbing in N. Conway, New Hampshire (where the author has done a lot of rock-climbing).  Weihenmayer’s rock climbing experience altered his life.  He continued climbing rock, and then moved on to ice-climbing and mountaineering.  He didn’t just followed more experienced climbers up the cliffs, he also learned to lead-climb:  placing one’s own protection along the climb and then clipping in the rope, what climbers call “the sharp end” of the rope.  I had the pleasure of climbing with Erik in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula a few years ago, while his seeing-eye dog slept in a sort of ice cave formed by the overhanging ice.  It is truly extraordinary to watch him climb.  He moves so smoothly, as he feels the ice above with his ice axe, and then sets the ice axe so deliberately when he finds the right spot, that you would not know he was climbing blind if you only watched for a little while.  Eventually, Erik decided to pursue the Seven Summits, climbing the highest peak on each continent:  Mt. McKinley (N. America), Aconcagua (S. America), Mt. Everest (Asia), Mt. Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica), Mt. Kosciusko (Australia), and Kilimanjaro (Africa).  He accomplished his goal in 2002.

            Erik Weihenmayer is by no means the only well-known, disabled climber.  In an amazing video, Beyond the Barriers (Perlman & Wellman, 1998), Erik goes climbing with Mark Wellman and Hugh Herr.  Wellman was paralyzed from the waist down in a climbing accident (Wellman & Flinn, 1992), and Herr lost both of his lower legs to frostbite after being caught in a vicious winter storm on Mt. Washington, NH (Osius, 1991; Note: The author has suffered a small patch of frostbite during a winter storm on Mt. Washington).  In Beyond the Barriers, Herr leads the hike toward the climb, while Erik carries Wellman.  Once on the climb, Herr leads the climb, Erik follows, and they set ropes for Wellman to do pull-ups up the cliff.  It simply has to be seen to be believed.  One of the surprising aspects is how they joke with each other about what they are doing.  As Erik is carrying Wellman, Wellman says:  “I don’t know man.  A blind man giving a para a piggyback ride?  It’s a pretty scary thing!”  When Herr starts climbing on a day when it was snowing, he says his hands are getting numb from the cold.  So, Erik asks him how his feet feel!  Humor was always an important part of Adlerian psychotherapy (Scott, 1984), so perhaps it should not be surprising that a sense of humor is an aspect of their personalities.  One of the funniest stories that Erik tells is about the time he accidentally drank out of his climbing partners piss bottle (a bottle used to urinate inside the tent during storms).  Erik became quite upset that the bottle wasn’t marked somehow, but his partner defended himself by saying he had clearly written on the bottle which one it was.  It slowly dawned on Erik’s partner that the writing was of no help to Erik.  As another example of Erik’s humor, consider the challenge he tried to avoid after having climbed the highest peaks in Africa and North and South America:


     Emma Louise Weihenmayer was born on June 21, year 2000, at 3:57 A.M.  There is so much to learn about parenthood.  Sometimes being a father is about as intense as climbing Denali, Kilimanjaro, and Aconcagua, all in a day.  Because I’m blind, I tried to convince Ellie that I couldn’t change diapers, but for some reason, she didn’t buy it. (pg. 303; Weihenmayer, 2001)


            In addition to his climbing, Erik Weihenmayer is a college graduate with a teaching certificate, and he spent some time as a middle school teacher.  He also tried the sport of wrestling, and was a wrestling coach.  Trevon Jenifer was also a wrestler.

            Trevon Jenifer was born without legs.  Perhaps even more challenging, however, was the fact that he was the fourth child of a poor, single mother living in a ghetto outside of Washington, DC.  Obviously, Trey (the name he goes by) began life facing difficult obstacles, but little by little, things got better.  His mother, Connie, made a conscious decision to take care of him the best she could.  She soon met Eric Brown, who became Trey’s step-father, providing a stable home for their family.  He met a wonderful special education teacher named Bob Gray, who got Trey interested in sports, and who helped to make participating in sports a realistic possibility.  He eventually joined a wheelchair track and basketball team named Air Capital, and he was very successful on the track, setting national records in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races.  It was prior to his junior year in high school, however, that his step-father, who had been a wrestler, recommended that Trey try out for the wrestling team, the regular wrestling team.

            What Trey wanted more than anything was to fit in, to have a normal social life at school.  Being in a wheelchair, that was not likely to happen.  However, he felt that sports might help him accomplish that goal, so he did try out for the wrestling team.  He worked hard, learned as much as he could, and he made the varsity team as the 103-pound competitor (actually, there was no one else that light on the team, but he didn’t know that).  His coach, Terry Green, did all he could to help Trey find a wrestling style that would take advantage of his relative arm strength (he made weight without legs, so his upper body was relatively large) while overcoming the disadvantage of not being able to balance or leverage his body weight by spreading out his legs.  Now it was up to Trey.  He was nervous in his first match, didn’t assert himself, and was easily pinned.  In his second match he became the aggressor and earned his first victory.  The rest of his junior year continued to be a series of wins and losses, and he ended the season 17-18.  Of course, it had only been his first season of wrestling.

            In anticipation of his senior year in high school, Trey continued to train hard.  Outside of the ring he also received recognition, and became a part of the social network of the school.  He received a Medal of Courage from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, he attended his school’s prom, and he was chosen as co-captain of the wrestling team.  Once again, humor played a role, as he compared his strength to a teammate from the previous year.  Trey had made significant strides in how much he could bench-press, so his former teammate asked him how much he could squat (a lift done entirely with the legs)!  Both wrestlers enjoyed a good laugh at that one.

            Trey was doing quite well in league wrestling, and he also began to do well in tournaments.  Eventually, he won a tournament, ended his season at 26-6, and from there went on the state championship.  He won his first match, but then had to face an undefeated wrestler.  He lost, but in that loss there was a sense of accomplishment due to how far he had come:


     I lost 5-2…I was hurt less by the fact that I lost, and more by the closeness of it.  This one hurt even more because of how close I was to beating the best wrestler in the state.  Sharbaugh went on to win the state championship.  In fact, he won his last two matches very convincingly, 6-0, and, 12-5.  He told reporters afterward that my match was his toughest of the tournament. (pp. 171-172; Trevon Jenifer in Jenifer & Goldenbach, 2006).


            The next morning he had to return to the championships to wrestle for a chance at third place in the state.  He began with a vengeance, scoring victories of 9-1 and 9-2.  His next match, and a shot at third place, was not so easy, but he won 3-1, earning his 30th victory of the season.  He then won his final match, and earned third place in the state championship.  However, an even more important challenge loomed ahead of him:  college.

            Coming from a poor, Black family, there was no tradition of children going to college.  However, a group of concerned philanthropists became interested in supporting his dreams.  His old coach at Air Capital had talked to Jim Glatch, who coached wheelchair basketball at Edinboro College in Pennsylvania, a school with a large population (10 percent) of students with disabilities.  Trevon Jenifer attended Edinboro College and played on the wheelchair basketball team.

            Some years ago, Trey was kind enough to respond to an email I sent him, and he provided me with an update on how things had gone during his first year of college.  He missed wrestling very much, but he really enjoyed his return to wheelchair basketball.  It probably didn’t hurt that the team was very good, and they came in second-place in the NCAA championship for wheelchair basketball.  Trey maintained good grades, his family strongly supported him in pursuing his education, and he had made many new friends.  But a few challenges remained.  It had been a little difficult for him to get used to the weather in northwestern Pennsylvania, and he had been too busy to attend as many book signings as his publisher would have liked.  As for becoming the inspiration his mother thought he was born to be:


     I think that I have inspired some people, and I think that is great, but I don’t think that it has reached all the people that I would like it too.  My family says that I have done a good job, but I [think that I could do a lot better], and I will try until I feel that I have reached that. (Trevon Jenifer; personal communication, 2007)


            The range of sports in which disabled individuals compete is extraordinary today.  Beyond the Barriers also includes disabled individuals sailing, scuba diving, surfing, and hang gliding.  A few years ago, after beginning to practice Tae Kwon Do, I discovered that I had degenerative joint disease in both hips.  I considered quitting Tae Kwon Do, but was strongly encouraged to continue by my instructors, as well as by my orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist.  I learned that Dirk Robertson, a former social worker turned actor and writer, had worked hard promoting martial arts training for people with disabilities (Robertson, 1991; see also McNab, 2003).  Each person simply needs to be encouraged to do their best.  Now I train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and it has done wonders for my strength and flexibility with two artificial hips.

            Adler suggested that the best way to strive for superiority was through social interest.  Whether it’s a climbing partner, a wrestling team, a wheelchair basketball team, a martial arts school, whatever, when people work together to help each individual achieve their potential, it can prove to be a highly rewarding experience.


     Whilst it is important to be sensitive to their particular situation, their disability should not be the central focus all the time.  Their ability to learn, listen and adapt should be built on and encouraged.  Do not be over-protective or an instant expert on people with disabilities.  The experts are the people themselves, so listen to what they have to say. (pp. 101-102; Robertson, 1991)

A Buddha with a Physical Disability?

            There are some wonderfully strange stories called Jataka, which relate experiences from the Buddha’s former lives.  A person who is destined to become a Buddha is known as a Bodhisatta, and Gotama Buddha is often referred to as the Bodhisatta.  In some of these stories the Bodhisatta is an animal, and my children enjoyed hearing these stories when they were young (for some contemporary versions with commentary see Martin, 1999).  In other Jataka tales, the future Buddha is a person who acts in wise and compassionate ways, as befitting a person who will someday become the Buddha.  In one of these stories, the Supparaka Jataka, the Bodhisatta was born into a family of mariners.  When his father died and he became head of the mariners, “wise he was, and full of intelligence; with him aboard, no ship came ever to harm.” (pg. 87; Cowell, 1895/1993).  After a while, however, his eyes were injured by salt water and he became blind.  He resolved to live in the service of the king, who appointed him valuer and assessor.  Using his hands to feel items that were brought to the king, including elephants, horses, and chariots, he was able to find the hidden defects that others had overlooked.  He then returned home, and was asked to be a ship’s captain again.  Though he was blind, the local merchants believed that no harm would come to a ship with him at the helm.  Indeed, their faith was rewarded (though not without some drama along the way; Cowell, 1895/1993).

            In the Sivi Jataka the Bodhisatta is born as a prince, and grows up to become King Sivi.  A ruler of great compassion, he vows to give anything asked of him to the poor.  When Sakka, the king of the gods, disguises himself as a poor, blind Brahmin and asks King Sivi for an eye, King Sivi gives him both of his eyes.  He considers his word to be more important than his sight!  Later, Sakka restores King Sivi’s eyesight in recognition of the king’s generosity and commitment to his pledge (Cowell, 1895/1993).

Current Directions in the Application of Positive Psychology to Disability

            In 2013, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Disability was published (Wehmeyer, 2013).  It consists of 31 chapters (over 500 pages) reviewing the application of positive psychological approaches and/or theories to a wide variety of conditions pertaining to those who have disabilities.  My point here is that I cannot do justice to this impressive work (though some of it covers issues already discussed).  Instead, let us merely take a glance at the wide range of topics presented in this handbook.  For those who are interested in pursuing this topic further, you are certainly welcome to do so.

            Buntinx (2013) discusses how the field of disability studies has shifted to a focus on strengths, with an emphasis on quality of life.  An individual’s quality of life involves the perception of one’s position in life within their culture and value system(s) and how that affects their goals and expectations.  Buntinx cites three well-known descriptions of the domains of quality of life:  Schalock and colleagues; the World Health Organization; and the Quality of Life Research Unit (Toronto).  These lists all contain physical health or well-being as being essential to one’s quality of life.

            Shogren (2013) continues this discussion of the value of physical health, and examines how the field of disability studies has paralleled the development of positive psychology in two important ways:  first with a shift in the focus from challenges (physical impairments or mental illness) toward the good life (optimal functioning) and second, by recognizing that people with these challenges are part of the overall continuum of human functioning (thus helping the remove the stigma associated with such conditions).

            Although the two fields have developed similar conceptual frameworks, only recently have they done so in conjunction with one another.  Thus, Shogren (2013) suggests that the suggested pillar of positive psychology referred to as positive institutions (see Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) is an ideal area for an emphasis on helping improve the lives of those with physical impairments (as psychology in general has pursued improving the lives of those with mental illness).


     …a vision articulated by positive psychologists is that positive psychology can “unify” psychology…If positive psychologists accept disability as part of the universal human experience, then the impact of positive psychology constructs and processes for all people, including people with disabilities, can become part of this unified mission…A greater infusion of disability within positive psychology also has the potential to bring greater attention to the role of supports in promoting optimal functioning for all individuals…All of us benefit when we have supports available to address mismatches between our capabilities and environmental demands, regardless of whether these mismatches define a “disability.” (pp. 28-29; Shogren, 2013)


            Returning to the overall quality of life for individuals with impairments (or anyone, for that matter), Schalock & Alonso (2013; the same Schalock referred to above by Buntinx) review the history of the quality of life approach and ask, quite simply, whether or not it has worked for individuals with intellectual impairments (and other similar developmental disorders).  Their approach to quality of life emphasizes three factors and eight domains.  Within the factor of independence, we find the domains of personal development and self-determination.  Within the factor of social participation, we fine the domains of interpersonal relations, social inclusion, and rights.  And within the factor of well-being, we find the domains of emotional well-being, physical well-being, and material well-being.

            Schalock & Alonso (2013) suggest that further research is needed to conclude that the quality of life approach has been an unqualified success, but they identify five significant contributions.  The quality of life concept has provided:  a positively oriented service delivery framework, an outcomes evaluation framework that addresses the eight quality of life domains, short-term gains in most of the quality of life domains, a balanced approach to evaluating outcomes utilizing multiple data sets, and the quality of life concept has become an organizational- and systems-level agent of change.

            There are numerous other studies in this handbook addressing topics typically found in positive psychology texts that demonstrate the potential for improving the lives of people who have an impairment.  For example, it appears to be helpful when an individual with an impairment is optimistic (Rand & Shea, 2013), hopeful (Buchanan & Lopez, 2013), resilient (Murray & Doren, 2013), forgiving and grateful (Gaventa, 2013), has friends and a supportive family (Blacher et al., 2013; Kersh et al., 2013), is provided with opportunities for exercise and leisure (Rowland, 2013), and is able to contribute to their own self-determination (Mithaug, 2013; Wehmeyer & Little, 2103).

            When it comes to identifying systems, or institutions, that can be agents of support for people with disabilities, it should be no surprise that families and schools would make the list (Chiu et al., 2013; Field, 2013).  But what about later in life?  Wehman and colleagues (2013) discuss the history and importance of supported employment.  In the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986, supported employment was both referenced and funded.

            Here in Lansing, MI we have a company that specializes in providing training and opportunities for people with disabilities.  It was there at Peckham, Inc. that I met the guy who introduced me to Brazillian Jiu Jitsu.  He is an employment specialist, and he loves his job.  There is an interesting reason that I am jealous of him:  his company is repeatedly recognized as one of the best companies to work for in America!  I suppose it makes sense that a company devoted to helping people become employable and improve their lives would be a nice place to work.

            As noted above, this handbook finishes with a chapter that questions whether or not the application of any of these positive psychological principles is of any value, due to the genetic set-point of subjective well-being.  Keep in mind, however, that Cummins (2013) believed a positive approach may be most helpful for those in homeostatic defeat.

            People born with an impairment may be less subject to disability, since they have always had the impairment.  In contrast, those who acquire an impairment may be more subject to disability, since they must make difficult adjustments in their life.  One of my students once asked what bothered me most about my impairment.  Essentially, she was asking me if my impairment was a disability.  Keep in mind that I teach psychology, so a question like this was in no way rude or disrespectful, and I didn’t take it that way.  We were simply having a frank discussion about life.

           At the time, I was still finding it difficult to walk, and could only do so with a cane.  I told her that what bothered me most is that I couldn’t simply do whatever I wanted to do with my children.  And some things I couldn’t do at all.  So yes, my impairment was a disability.  Since then, thanks to two major surgeries, extensive physical therapy, and my own continued exercise, there isn’t much that I can’t do anymore (notwithstanding my age!).  However, my children have grown up and moved out.  Life goes on.

* * *

            Aesop was crooked, Socrates purblind, long-legged, hairy, Democritus withered, Seneca lean and harsh, ugly to behold; yet shew me so many flourishing wits, such divine spirits!  Horace a little blear-eyed contemptible fellow, yet who so sententious and wise?  Marcilius Ficinus, Faber Stapulensis, a couple of dwarfs, Melancthon a short hard-favoured man, parvus erat, sed magnus erat, etc. yet of incomparable parts all three.  Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, by reason of an hurt he received in his leg at the siege of Pampeluna, the chief town of Navarre in Spain, unfit for wars, and less serviceable at court, upon that accident betook himself to his beads, and by those means got more honour than ever he should have done with the use of his limbs, and properness of person, vulnus non penetrate animus, a wound hurts not the soul. (pg. 155; Burton, 1621/1927a)

Positive Psychology and Racism/Tribalism

            As I mentioned previously, there have always been psychologists who pursued positive aspects of psychology.  Gordon Allport was one of those individuals.  Allport was a sincerely religious/spiritual man, with a deep commitment to social justice.  These principles came from Allport’s family, and his older brother Floyd is recognized as one of the founders of the field of social psychology.  Gordon Allport focused on personality, and is recognized as the founder of trait theory in personality, an endeavor he became interested in after meeting Sigmund Freud and becoming concerned that the psychoanalysts were trying too hard to analyze every little thing a person does.  He wrote one of the first two textbooks on personality (Ross Stagner also wrote a personality textbook in 1937; Allport, 1937, Stagner, 1937), and he likely taught the first course on the psychology of personality (in 1924 at Harvard University).

            During World War II, Allport began working on problems of morale, which led into the study of rumors.  A disturbing aspect of many rumors was that they were designed to enhance prejudice and group antagonism.  This led to a series of seminars on race relations for the Boston Police Department, a book entitled The Psychology of Rumor (Allport & Postman, 1947), and ultimately to Allport’s classic study The Nature of Prejudice (first published in 1954; Allport, 1979).

The Nature of Prejudice

            Since Allport was committed to social ethics throughout his life, his classic study on prejudice did not arise suddenly.  During World War II, one of his projects was to study the effects of rumor.  A rumor, according to Allport’s definition, is a specific proposition for belief, passed from person to person, without any secure standards of evidence.  When a rumor follows some event, the information that people report is based on memory.  Important aspects of those memories are often false, and they are false in conjunction with negative stereotypes.  Interestingly, this is much less likely to occur with children, who often fail to identify the racial aspects of scenes they have observed (at least in a research setting).  Rumors are particularly dangerous when they incite riots, and Allport and Postman wrote that “no riot ever occurs without rumors to incite, accompany, and intensify the violence” (pg. 193; Allport & Postman, 1947).  In 1943 there were major riots in Harlem and Detroit, in which negative racial rumors played an important role.  In Detroit in particular, according to Allport, if the authorities had listened to the rumors the violence might have been avoided.

            The following year, Allport taught a course on minority group problems to the police captains for the city of Boston, Massachusetts.  In 1947 he repeated the course for police officers in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  One year later, he presented some of his material in a Freedom Pamphlet entitled ABC’s of Scapegoating (Allport, 1948).  This pamphlet later grew (rather dramatically, from 36 pages to 537 pages) into his book The Nature of Prejudice, which was published in 1954 (Allport, 1979).  Despite his preparation (i.e., the pamphlet), the challenge of a major study on prejudice was still daunting.  The problem of the causes of prejudice was so large that it took Allport several years to work out the table of contents, which ended up being eight pages long, including sections on preferential thinking, group differences, perceiving and thinking about group differences, sociocultural factors, acquiring prejudice, the dynamics of prejudice, character structure, and reducing group tensions.

            Despite being over 500 pages long, The Nature of Prejudice is concise.  In part, this indicates the magnitude of the problem of prejudice, and also makes it extremely difficult to summarize the book.  Allport begins by asking “What is the problem?”  He describes five levels at which people act on prejudice.  Most people will only talk about their prejudice with like-minded friends.  If the prejudice is strong, they may actively avoid members of another group, and then they may discriminate against them, engaging in detrimental activities toward the disliked group.  More extreme prejudice may actually lead to physical attacks, and ultimately, to extermination, such as lynchings or genocide.  Is this behavior to be expected?  According to Allport, the essential ingredients of prejudice, erroneous generalization and hostility, are natural and common capacities of the human mind.  What is necessary, however, is the formation of in-groups, and the rejection of out-groups.  We form in-groups naturally as we develop; we learn to like the things we are familiar with.  This does not require hostility toward out-groups, but it is an unfortunate reality that many people define their loyalty to the in-group in terms of rejecting the values and customs of the out-group.  For those people, rejecting the out-group becomes a powerful need.

            Although many differences exist between groups, why has race been emphasized?  The answer is, in part, disturbingly simple:  we can see race.  In addition, most people don’t know the difference between race and ethnic group, or race and social caste.  Thus, it is simply easier to identify out-groups on the basis of race.  Making matters worse, of course, is the reality that we can’t even define race that well.  Allport discusses research that has suggested as many as thirty different human races or types, yet most of us think in terms of three basic races:  White, Black, and Asian (more recently the number would be at least four, including Hispanics).  Discriminating against one “race,” such as Blacks in America, without even beginning to understand individual character (i.e., personality) or other aspects of culture, such as religion, customs, or national character (which can also be quite complex), is simply an ignorant act.  Yet a point that Allport returns to, as an explanation regarding how natural it is to be prejudice, is that people who are different seem strange, and strangeness is something that makes most people uncomfortable, and it may actually be aversive to many people.

            Unfortunately, the victimization of minority groups can enhance the differences and discomfort that exist between groups.  As Allport noted:


     Ask yourself what would happen to your own personality if you heard it said over and over again that you were lazy, a simple child of nature, expected to steal, and had inferior blood.  Suppose this opinion were forced on you by the majority of your fellow-citizens.  And suppose nothing that you could do would change this opinion - because you happen to have black skin. (pg. 142; Allport, 1979)


            Minorities can become obsessively concerned about everything they do and everywhere they go in public.  They develop a basic feeling of insecurity.  The simplest response to prejudice is to deny one’s membership in the minority group.  For example, some very light-skinned Blacks have passed as White people.  But this can lead to great personal conflict, and the feeling that one is a traitor.  Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, had to fight against prejudice within the Black community itself against those Blacks whose skin was viewed as too light (see Kai Erikson, 1973).  Oppressed minority group members might also become withdrawn, passive, or they might act like clowns, trying to make fun of their circumstances.  Worse, they may identify with the majority group, leading to self-hate and acting out against members of their own group.  Of course, there are those who will also fight back aggressively, such as Huey Newton and the members of the Black Panthers (e.g., see Hilliard & Weise, 2002; Newton, 1973).

            How might we begin to combat prejudice?  Allport discussed an interesting study that addressed the sociological theory of contact between groups.  During the Detroit riots of 1943, both Black and White students at Wayne University (which later became Wayne State University) attended class peacefully during what became known as Bloody Monday.  It has been suggested that when groups of humans meet they go through a four-stage process:  contact itself, followed by competition, then accommodation, and finally assimilation.  Thus, the initial contact naturally leads to a peaceful progression of the inter-group relationship.  While this is not always the case, there are many examples where it has been.  But, it cannot occur without the initial contact.  Thus, encouraging contact between groups is an important step in combating prejudice.  Allport notes, however, that it is important for the contact to be of equal status and to be in the pursuit of common goals.

            Allport also addressed the issue of using legislation to fight prejudice.  Unfortunately, as he points out, laws can only have an indirect effect on personal prejudice.  They cannot affect one’s thoughts and feelings, they can only influence behavior.  However, it is also known that behavior can influence one’s thoughts, opinions, and attitudes (e.g., cognitive dissonance).  Thus, Allport encourages the continued use of legislation as a significant method for reducing public discrimination and personal prejudice.  More important, however, is the need to take positive action toward reducing prejudice, including the use of intercultural education.

            In a fascinating study published one year after The Nature of Prejudice, Gillespie & Allport presented the results of a study entitled Youth’s Outlook on the Future (Gillespie & Allport, 1955).  What made the study remarkable was that it included students from the United States, New Zealand, South Africa (both Black and White students), Egypt, Mexico, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Israel.  Included among the questions was the issue of racial equality, whether students desired greater racial equality and whether they expected greater racial equality.  A large majority of college students reported that they desired greater racial equality, ranging from 83 to 99 percent.  The notable exceptions were Germany (65 percent), and English speaking South Africans (75 percent) and Afrikaners in South Africa (14 percent - this was during Apartheid).  As for the expectation that there would be greater racial equality in the future, students in most of the countries studied said yes between 67 to 73 percent of the time, with notable exceptions being Black South Africans (57 percent), Japanese (53 percent), and Mexicans (87 percent).  Thus, most college students around the world (in 1955) desired racial equality, but a significant portion of them did not expect to see it in the future.  Considering the state of the world today, we are far from learning the final outcome of this crucial social issue.

            If it were possible to achieve a world in which people were not prejudice, what attitude should replace it?  This question was recently addressed by Whitley and Kite (2006), and they identify the two most commonly raised options:  color-blindness and multiculturalism.  The color-blind perspective suggests that people should ignore race and ethnicity, acting as if they simply don’t exist, whereas the multicultural perspective considers ethnic/racial identity as cognitively inescapable and fundamental to self-concept.  Color-blind proponents argue that as long as race is an issue, there will be some forms of discrimination.  Multicultural proponents argue in favor of retaining one’s cultural heritage, thus preserving integrity, while also encouraging group interaction and harmonious coexistence.  Does one approach appear to be more effective at reducing prejudice?  To date, the evidence favors the multicultural approach.  Whitley and Kite suggest that reducing prejudice is most likely to occur as a result of individuals both changing their own attitudes and working to help others change their attitudes as well.  It is important to reflect on one’s own thoughts and behaviors, and to help others become aware of their attitudes and behaviors.  In addition, it is important to learn more about other groups, and to actively participate in inter-group contact (Whitley & Kite, 2006; see also Blais, 2010).  In other words, multiculturalism works best when it actually exists; people need to associate with people of other races, religions, and cultures.  Only then can ignorance, as in simply not knowing about other people and their cultural differences, be replaced by knowledge and acceptance.

            When Allport published his study on prejudice, it was important that the topic was even being addressed.  Today, it is more common to examine the nature of cultural differences and to pursue positive aspects of the value of multicultural settings.  A number of recent studies have emphasized various aspects of the differences between people from various cultures, the importance of not feeling so different, and how interaction between groups can prove valuable.  For example, the Chinese tend to anticipate change more readily than Americans, they predict greater levels of change when it begins, and they consider those who predict change to be wise (Ji, Nisbett, & Su, 2001).  Asian Americans, South Koreans, and Russians are more likely than Americans to adopt avoidance goals, but the adoption of those goals is not a negative predictor of subjective well-being in those collectivist cultures, as it is in individualistic cultures (Elliot et al., 2001).  The Japanese appear to be subject to cognitive dissonance effects in a “free” choice paradigm, but only in the presence of important others.  Americans, in contrast, are less affected by social-cue manipulations in “free” choice situations (Kitayama et al., 2004).

            Although social stereotyping typically results in an over-generalized tendency to include people in groups, under certain circumstance it can also lead to excluding certain individuals from their apparent in-group (Biernat, 2003).  Particularly for young people, in-group connection is very important.  Low-income, high risk African American and Latino teens who do not “look” like other members of their in-group are at a much higher risk for dropping out of school, but the ability to fit in also has a protective effect (Oyserman et al., 2006).  Even when significant contact between groups does occur, it may only reduce certain aspects of prejudice, and may do so only for the minority group (as opposed to changes in the majority group; Henry & Hardin, 2006).

            So, how can contact between different cultural groups begin to reduce prejudice and discrimination in such a complex issue?  It has been shown that when college students are placed in racially diverse groups, they actually engage in more complex thinking, and they credited minority members with adding to the novelty of their discussions (Antonio et al., 2004).  Perhaps most importantly, multiculturalism can also foster the development of a character strength described by Fowers and Davidov (2006) as openness to the other.

            However, multiculturalism is not without its challenges.  Working in diverse teams can lead to social divisions, increasing the likelihood of negative performance teams.  Accordingly, it is essential to examine the types of diversity that come into play, since some favor and exploit a wider variety of perspectives and skills, whereas others more readily lead to conflict and division (Kravitz, 2005; Mannix & Neale, 2005).  Within the field of psychology, a discipline actively encouraging the growth of minority group membership, there has been a lag in successfully moving students beyond the bachelor’s degree to the doctoral level (Maton et al., 2006).  The challenges faced by minority graduate students and faculty are, not surprisingly, as diverse as the individuals themselves (see Vasquez et al., 2006).  Thus, we have a long way to go in understanding and overcoming prejudice and discrimination.  However, within a framework first established in detail by Allport, our examination and understanding of the major issues is rapidly growing.

            When Allport conducted his work on prejudice, the specific field of “positive psychology” was still over half a century away.  Indeed, it was not until 2010 that a specific collection of research was pulled together from disparate areas of psychological research in an attempt to address racism within the context of positive psychology per se.  So let’s now turn our attention to that work.

Racism Viewed from a Positive Psychological Perspective

            Are we born racist?  It seems like a simple question, and it’s the title of a collection of essays addressing the issue (Marsh, Mendoza-Denton, & Smith, 2010).  The editors of this book begin by emphasizing the key point that we must acknowledge the existence of racism, even in its most subtle forms, if we are to change the behavior of people for the better.

            It appears that the human brain is programmed to recognize “us vs. not-us” distinctions very quickly, and sometimes the recognition automatically involves negative evaluations.  For example, when white people are shown pictures of other white people, or when black people are shown pictures of other black people, as we might expect the areas of the brain that become active are associated with the recognition of faces.  In other words, the subjects were trying to recognize the pictures they had seen.  In contrast, when white people view pictures of black people, and vice versa, the brain regions activated immediately are associated with vigilance and fear (see Fiske, 2010).  Perhaps the most disturbing suggestion from this research is that whites do not see blacks as people first, and likewise the black subjects saw white people as a threat before seeing them as people.

            However, this initial reaction is not necessarily the only reaction.  If whites view the image of a black face for a longer period of time (to get past the initial reaction), brain regions associated with self-control and inhibition kick in.  Manipulating the social context, and providing non-racial distraction can also ameliorate or even eliminate the racial negativity (see Fiske, 2010).  And yet, social interactions reveal more complexity when examined in detail.

            Studies of implicit racial bias have shown that body language and facial muscle activity suggest there is much more discomfort when experiencing an interracial encounter.  Consequently, our body language conveys that stress to the other person, potentially negatively influencing the encounter.  This occurs even in individuals who explicitly deny any negative racial bias or prejudice (Johnson, 2010).  However, there is a simply way to counter this effect:  have the subject smile.  It appears that putting a person in a good mood can significantly weaken implicit bias and lead to more positive racial interactions.

            Just how much does all of this really matter, some of you might be asking yourselves?  A lot really, since racism can have significant effects on our health.  Health psychology was something of a precursor to the field of positive psychology, and encouraging people to make healthy choices so they might live a longer and more productive life is a noble goal.  Areas which are the target of significant racial discrimination often have significantly higher levels of disorders ranging from infant mortality to heart disease and cancer.  These problems are likely the result of increased and unrelenting stress resulting in chronic feelings of powerlessness and leaving no apparent room for optimism, self-esteem, or any apparent coping mechanisms (Ekman & Smith, 2010).

            It’s not only the people subjected to racism who suffer.  Racist individuals view interracial encounters not as a challenge, but as a threat!  If they live in a community where interracial encounters are common, then they are going to experience chronic stress levels as well, leading to many of the same health consequences as those who are discriminated against.  However, once again, these stress levels can be reduced if the racially biased individual participates in a cross-race friendship building program (Page-Gould, 2010).

            So it appears that we are biologically programmed to be racist, which has potentially serious, negative health consequences if we cannot avoid the stress of interracial encounters, but when we take the time to process an interracial encounter longer, and if we are either already smiling or otherwise encouraged to be in a good mood (e.g., by experimental manipulation), then these interracial encounters can be significantly more positive.  How then, can we do more to encourage positive interracial attitude encounters?

            In the second section of their book, Marsh et al. (2010) emphasize the perspective mentioned earlier:  that the color-blind perspective is simply not an effective approach.


            But what the color blindness camp overlooks – deliberately or not it’s hard to say – is that the roots of racial prejudice lie not in whether we perceive race but in how we perceive it.  There’s a crucial difference between seeing skin color as a marker of inferiority and seeing skin color at all:  the latter is cognitively inevitable, the former is socially conditioned.  A realistic goal for Americans – for all humanity - is not to train ourselves to be blind to the existence of racial differences.  Rather it’s to become more attuned to how our brains and bodies respond to such differences, and why we’ve learned to respond as we do.
            (pg. 57; Marsh et al., 2010)


            So, how to proceed?  Allison Briscoe-Smith (2010) suggests talking to children from an early age about race.  Of course, how you talk to children is an important component of these interactions.  Naturally, the talk should remain positive, particularly avoiding language that induces fear in children.  Should such language become somewhat necessary, such as talking to a child about prejudice and discrimination they may well encounter, it is important to also discuss ways to cope with problems.  This can provide the child with the support and coping skills they need to make sense of the world they encounter, hopefully leading to greater understanding and tolerance.

            We spend much of our lives either in school or at work.  Schools can actively promote tolerance and equality by adopting specific curricula addressing issues such as multiculturalism (teaching students about diverse groups) and antiracist/antibias interventions (teaching students about social problems such as racism and xenophobia).  They can also strengthen their character education by teaching positive values and promoting cross-group contact (Holladay, 2010).  Cross-group contact is also valuable in the workplace, but it is important that individuals publicize their strengths and that the group strives to recognize its shared fate.  Thus, the role of the manager(s) is essential in ensuring that the team is actually functioning as a team (Chatman, 2010).

            Unfortunately, when people try to talk to people, especially about a sensitive subject like race, a variety of problems arise.  Strangely, research has shown that the less biased a white person is in a paired interracial conversation, the less their black partners like them!   Why?  The research suggests that the more the white partner focused on self-monitoring, to appear not racist, the worse they were as a partner in the conversation.  In situations like this, white subjects appear to be threatened by the expectation that they will be viewed as prejudiced.  Factors such as these stereotype threats lead both blacks and white to assume that the other group is not interested in interracial interactions, even though both groups tend to actually desire such contact (Mendoza-Denton, 2010).

            Consequently, Mendoza-Denton (2010) suggests it is important to work on learning the skills of communication, beginning with setting aside the assumption that people are either prejudiced or not.  It’s not that simple.  He suggests that three factors are critical:  contact, time, and patience.  Contact, of course, has been recognized since the work of Allport and others (see previous section).  However, in conjunction with time, we recognize that brief contact may not be adequate for the positive effects of contact to take hold.  This is an age-old problem, and it will not simply go away quickly.   Given what has already been said about some of the difficulties inherent in this process, we must be patient.


            Happily, over time, the cross-race interaction partners in our study achieved cross-race friendships – and that is precisely the point.  Research suggests that frank conversations around race are likely to be saddled with negative expectations, so the beginnings of these conversations are likely to be rocky.  We need patience for ourselves and others – not only in how to unlearn our biases and negative expectations, but also in how to learn from each other during our interracial interactions.  And we need time – time to allow each other to be understood, time for us to relax, time for us to simply talk and get to know each other as human beings.  (pg. 94; Mendoza-Denton, 2010)

Ubuntu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

            The traditional African concept of ubuntu is one that encompasses the best that the people of Africa have to offer in terms of social harmony.  It has come into play several times during difficult periods of nation building as African countries have gained independence and moved toward democracy.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, served as Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the nation of South Africa transitioned from apartheid to democracy.  Rather than seeking revenge and the punishment of those who had supported apartheid, or attempting to achieve some sort of national amnesia through blanket amnesty, the South Africans chose a third alternative.  Amnesty would be granted only to those who admitted what had been done in the past.  While some were concerned that such an option would allow crimes to go unpunished, the deep spirit of humanity that is ubuntu can lead to being magnanimous and forgiving.


            Ubuntu…speaks of the very essence of being human.   When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu”; “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.”  Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate.  You share what you have.  It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.”  We belong in a bundle of life. (pg. 31, Tutu, 1999)


            Essential to the process of reconciliation is forgiveness.  According to Archbishop Tutu (2010), forgiveness is based on true confession.  So, as evidenced by its very name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only afforded amnesty to those who had committed crimes under apartheid if they fully disclosed all they had done – only if they told the truth.  Out of more than 7,000 applications, only 849 were granted.  Nonetheless, South Africa was able to move forward, since their goal had been restoration rather than retribution, a world that is whole rather than one that is fragmented.  As Archbishop Tutu put it, “only forgiveness enables us to restore trust and compassion to our relationships.”

            Samkange and Samkange (1980) discuss how extensively ubuntu (aka, hunhu, depending on the language) is intertwined with life amongst the people of Zimbabwe.  It leads to a sense of deep personal relationship with all members of different tribes related by the marriage of two individuals.  It has influenced the development of nations as they achieved freedom from colonial governments, and it encourages amicable foreign policies.  Ubuntu can help to guide judicial proceedings, division of resources, aid to victims of war and disaster, and the need to support free education for all people.  The special characteristic that ubuntu imparts on African people can also be seen among the African diaspora, those Africans who have been displaced from their homeland.  For example, Black Americans typically have something unique that distinguishes them from White Americans, something called “soul.”  According to Samkange and Samkange (1980) “soul is long suffering (“Oh Lord, have mercy”); soul is deep emotion (“Help me, Jesus”) and soul is a feeling of oneness with other black people.”  As a result of the Black American’s experience with slavery, we now have soul food, soul music, and soul brothers.

            Although ubuntu is uniquely African, the peace and harmony associated with it can be experienced by all people.  According to Archbishop Tutu it is the same spirit that leads to worldwide feelings of compassion and the outpouring of generosity following a terrible natural disaster, or to the founding of an institution like the United Nations, and the signing of international charters on the rights of children and woman, or trying to ban torture, racism, or the use of antipersonnel land mines (Tutu, 1999).  Though ubuntu itself may belong to Africa, the essence of it is something shared by all dispossessed groups around the world (Mbigi & Maree, 1995).  It embodies a group solidarity that is central to the survival of all poor communities, whether they are inner city ghettos in the West, or poor rural communities in developing countries.  According to Mbigi and Maree (1995), the key values of ubuntu are group solidarity, conformity, compassion, respect, human dignity, and collective unity.  They believe that African organizations need to harness these ubuntu values as a dynamic transformative force for the development of African nations and the African people.  Samkange and Samkange share that view:


     …ubuntuism permeates and radiates through all facets of our lives, such as religion, politics, economics, etc…Some aspects of hunhuism or ubuntuism are applicable to the present and future as they were in the past…It is the duty of African scholars to discern and delineate hunhuism or ubuntuism so that it can, when applied, provide African solutions to African problems. (pg. 103; Samkange & Samkange, 1980)


            As noted above, the concept underlying racism is usually the perceived contrast between “us vs. them.”  Tribalism refers to perhaps the major aspect of what defines the in-group, the “us.”  Interestingly, however, tribalism can reach across other lines of discrimination, so it can work both ways.  Specifically, tribalism is a cultural phenomenon in which individuals exhibit greater loyalty to the tribe than to their friends and/or family.

            In his recent book Tribe, Sebastian Junger (2016) takes a close and disturbing look at one of the most tribal groups in our society:  the military (disclosure:  I served 9 years in the U.S. Marine Corps reserve).  Most of us are likely aware of stories of the many men and women who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who now suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).  This has led, in part, to an apparent epidemic of suicides amongst military personnel and veterans (according to an Army study the suicide rate doubled between 2004 and 2009; Kessler et al., 2014; Nock et al., 2014; Schoenbaum et al., 2014).

            However, Junger (2016) points out that increases in PTSD and suicide rates do not appear to correlate with combat experience.  Rather, they correlate with psychological stressors prior to joining the military (i.e., typically during childhood) which then manifest after the veterans return home, sometimes only after a significant period of time.  So, what is happening here?  According to Junger, and the many professionals he interviewed for his book, the problem appears to be our society.

            Let’s back up for a minute, and examine how this process seems to play out.  Many of the people joining the military come from poor and often negative environments, perhaps outright abusive.  The military provides an escape, and the training they undergo emphasizes something called unit cohesion.  Their military unit becomes a family of sorts, aka, a tribe.  Even in the midst of something seemingly as traumatic as combat this tribe provides a solid base of support.

            But then they come home, to a society that does not understand their experiences and does not support them.  Indeed, our society today is terribly divided.  Consider this:  for everyone serving in the military their commander-in-chief is the U.S. President.  When Barack Obama was elected many people hailed it as signaling the end of racism in the U.S.A.  However, there were reports that Republican leadership met and vowed to never work with President Obama.  The “birthers” claimed he was born in Africa, not in Hawaii, and as I write this the most famous of the birthers is the Republican nominee for president (and as I proofread it he has been elected).  Many people also kept accusing the former president (President Obama) of being a secret Muslim, as if that mattered (perhaps they should read the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).

            Imagine what it must be like for people serving in the military, supposedly defending our constitution (including the first amendment!), to come home to such hateful and unpatriotic vitriol in our government.  Indeed, we have people who hold government positions, making much more money than the military personnel, wanting to shut down a wide range of government services.  It must be very psychologically disorienting!  Circumstances like this have led many veterans to report that they miss their time in the military, even in combat.

            The question then arises, is this something unique to the military experience, or are there other examples of people pulling together in times of particular stress?  If there are other examples, it might say something very positive about the nature of people, i.e., that the worst of times have the potential to bring out the best in people.  Obviously, if the answer were no I wouldn’t be bringing it up.

            As it turns out, groups of people tend to come together in support of one another following disasters.  A disaster involves mass destruction of property and the consequent injuries and loss of life that accompany such destruction.  Of greater concern, however, is that a disaster occurs when the established social life of a community abruptly comes to an end (at least for a time; Form et al., 1958).  It should be noted that more recent studies have taken a broader and more complex view of what defines disasters, but in so doing they have made it all but impossible to define a disaster in any simple terms (see Oliver-Smith & Hoffman, 1999).  For our purposes we’ll try to keep things simple.

            Although the time immediately following a disaster may seem chaotic, this is typically not actually the case:


            To the untrained observer, behavior in the aftermath of a disaster may seem random, disconnected, and perhaps highly inefficient.  To those trained to study the organized life of a community, no observation could be further from the truth.  Everyday community life is the result of what people believe in, their values, their expectations, and their social loyalties.  These beliefs and values are not destroyed by tornadoes or bombs.  They survive physical destruction and enable people and their communities to function under the most distressful conditions.  (pg. 10; Form et al., 1958)


            In their study, Form et al. (1958) emphasized that following a disaster people tend to perform their expected societal roles within the context of certain intervening variables.  Generally, these roles are complementary.  For example, men will play more of a role in protecting people and aiding in rescue, whereas women will play more of a role in caring for the injured.  In addition to gender roles, the age of the individual, their status within a family, their connections with their neighbors, and their occupation are all important factors in determining how they act during the crisis.

            Of course, other factors come into play as well.  For example, where the individual is when the disaster strikes in relation to their family, and what, if any, knowledge they have regarding the safety of or injuries to their loved ones is important.  Likewise, their training and occupation may dictate how they react, and whether they are specifically connected with an organization responsible for reacting to disasters (e.g., fire, police, or medical staff).  So, if one knows who a person is and what their personal circumstances are, thus suggesting their expected role following the disaster, we should be able to recognize that their behavior is understandable and predictable.  And the predictions typically are that people do what needs to be done in spite of the stressful conditions, at least during the initial aftermath of a disaster (Form et al., 1958; see also Hoffman, 1999a).

            Susanna Hoffman is an anthropologist who has studied disasters and recovery with particular interest since her home, all her possessions (including 25 years of research and 7 manuscripts), and her pets were destroyed in the firestorm that swept through Oakland and Berkeley, CA on October 20th, 1991 (Hoffman, 1999a,b).  Nearly four thousand houses were destroyed, and 25 people died (a surprisingly small number, actually, since the firestorm raged through the neighborhoods at 60 miles/hour).  As noted above, following the immediate shock of the disaster itself, people then began to help each other in whatever ways they could:  taking people to safety, caring for the injured, sharing food and clothing, searching for the missing in groups so no one was alone.  In the days that followed they joined into groups and began working toward the rebuilding of the community (Hoffman, 1999a,b).

            There is, however, a dark reality that follows.  Let me comment on this before actually going into it.  This book is intended for positive psychology, so there is a temptation to keep it positive.  However, we also need to focus on reality.  Yes, immediately after a disaster we see the best in people as they struggle to both survive and help others to survive.  The purpose here in taking a look at what happens next is in keeping with the whole point of this last section in my class:  that there are those who need positivity in their lives, and life doesn’t always treat people fairly or with compassion.  In other words, reality is dispassionate, unless we know that and do something to make things better.

            As noted above, immediately following a disaster people fall into their traditional cultural roles and get to work helping one another (Form et al., 1958).  Susanna Hoffman (1999b) noticed this most dramatically in a negative way:  even though she lived in a largely progressive, academically oriented community, following the firestorm nearly everyone reverted to traditional male/female gender roles.  Consequently, women were overburdened with caring for the injured and everyone else, including themselves.  Perhaps the most dramatic examples involved work.  In the weeks following the firestorm, men would start going back to work each day, leaving the women to deal with the damaged properties and struggling survivors.  Some of these women had to quit their jobs to do this, but that was simply expected of them!

            After the initial phase of the recovery, which is marked by the people of the community coming together, the community begins to split apart.  The survivors become isolated as society at large loses its interest in dealing with the disaster.  Divisions occurred along such sad lines as those who lost their entire home vs. those who lost only part of a home.  Friends who were not directly involved stopped communicating with survivors.  Even families split apart, as those not involved in the disaster thought they had more pressing needs for the insurance settlements than the people who actually suffered the loss of property and possessions.  As Hoffman describes it (1999a,b), the phases of recovery from a disaster demonstrate the best in people followed by the worst in people.

            The loss of friendships and familial ties following a disaster is particularly difficult when it comes to the recovery of survivors.  Indeed, social capital, the networks and resources available to people through their connections to others, may be the most important factor underlying a community’s ability to recover (Aldrich, 2012).  When a community maintains the social ties of its members, that community is likely to be resilient, as people will come together and stay together.  Consequently, that community is more likely to recover from a disaster.  Unfortunately, top-down, government-driven programs tend to ignore or even damage social ties, including the standard reaction of throwing money at the problem (when even that is done).


     …high levels of social capital – more than such commonly referenced factors as socioeconomic conditions, population density, amount of damage, or aid – serve as the core engine of recovery.  Survivors with strong social networks experience faster recoveries and have access to needed information, tools, and assistance.  Communities and neighborhoods with little social capital may find themselves unable to keep up with their counterparts with these deep networks.  More pernicious is that for those already on the periphery of society, who lack strong network ties to translocal authorities, other groups with strong social capital can further marginalize them, pushing these less-connected survivors out of the rehabilitation process and slowing down their recovery.  (pg. 15; Aldrich, 2012).


            The latter point, that more connected groups can crowd out and actually interfere with the recovery of other groups, was the concern expressed by Hoffman (1999b) when she saw post-disaster recovery bring out traditional gender roles in a community that defied them prior to the Oakland firestorm.  Being a woman is one of the factors associated with being a marginalized group facing particular difficulties following a disaster.

            So, if we recognize that recovery for humans goes beyond infrastructure recovery, how might we go about aiding the re-establishment of the social and daily routines that promote well-being in a community?  One possibility is following the example of grass-roots organizing campaigns.  By encouraging and supporting local organization of recovery systems, the community begins to rebuild itself – as opposed to relying on something like government programs that bring in people and resources from outside, thus having little investment in the community itself, other than their role as disaster recovery agencies (e.g., FEMA or the Red Cross).  Programs in keeping with this principle are new, but some have begun.  Only time will tell if this becomes a more routine aspect of aiding in the recovery from a disaster (Aldrich, 2012).


Return to top