I was thinking about one of those late night philosophical discussions from 35 years ago – the kind you tend to have your sophomore year in college. My roommates and I were arguing over whether beauty was objective or “in the eye of the beholder.” (It was in the context of music, so perhaps “in the ear of the beholder” would be more accurate.) What triggered my recollection was an article in this morning’s New York Times about a fashion photographer who started a non-profit called Positive Exposure. The organization’s aim is “to transform perceptions of people living with genetic, physical and behavioral differences, both among the public and health care professionals.” The article is accompanied by a strikingly beautiful collection of photos of people with a variety of conditions that don’t mesh with our conventional concept of beauty.
The landmark Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law 25 years ago this week. In the quarter-century since then, our public places have become measurably more accessible, and I believe there is greater acceptance of the idea that people with disabilities can and should contribute as fully as possible in all facets of society. What I don’t know is whether there has been commensurate progress on attitudes toward those with disabilities. Is the situation like that of black Americans, where physical and legal barriers have simply been replaced by less visible ones of mind-set? Or, as the photo essay in the Times suggests, are we starting to actually see the people behind the disabilities as, well, beautiful?