Constructions of identity among young students living with visual or physical disabilities at a university in Cape Town
Steyn, Inga Dale
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Not all disabilities are the same and the way that society may respond to people with disabilities depends on their “disability” and how their body deviates from the appearance norms of society. People with disabilities constitute a significant portion of the South African population. A body of research and physical evidence shows that people with disabilities may face certain obstacles or limitations in fulfilling a normal life. Obstacles include perceptions of disabilities, negative stigma and attitudes, barriers to an environment which is accessible for people with disabilities, and constructions of ableism. In a way, these obstacles influence the way people with disabilities construct their identity. Beyond this, the voices of people with disabilities are not always heard and their personal experiences are not always given political recognition. This research aimed to explore how a group of students living with a physical or visual disability constructed their identities in their environment or society. A feminist qualitative method was conducted. The study focused on the experiences and perceptions of nineteen to twenty-seven year old female and male students with disabilities. Out of the six participants, two were coloured, three were black and one participant is classified as coloured, but identifies as biracial. A semi-structured interview was used for data collection and a Qualitative Thematic Analysis was used to analyse the data. Social constructionism and intersectionality were useful theoretical approaches adopted in exploring the lived experiences of students with disabilities. The results of this study revealed that students with disabilities find living with a disability as not being a barrier to living a fulfilling life. Students with disabilities construct their identities in a way that frees them from ideologies which shape the experience of disability in a negative way. However, the study revealed that negative barriers to identity construction still exist. These barriers come in the form of negative perceptions and stigma of disability, ableism and the medical model. The study further revealed that when the lived experiences of students with disabilities are understood through the lens of gender, race and class, these social divisions overlap and are cumulative on the effects of student’s experiences. The one major barrier in identity construction that the study revealed is the negative social perceptions of disability. The way in which students feel that they belong in their society is representative of how they respond to negative social constructions of disability.