Defining Disability.

The classic disabled logo of a white stick figure using a wheelchair on a blue background, mirrored.

Lots of interesting things were discussed at a conference I recently attended, but nothing quite captured my attention as much as the discussion on how disability is defined. The dictionary definition of the word is “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities”, but this definition has multiple fallacies. Most problematic for me is the use of the word limit, suggesting that our contributions to society are weaker & lesser. It also promotes inaccessibility by making assumptions about our conditions & how that affects our needs.

Furthermore, in my personal experience of disability I am mobile; I can stand or walk. My difficulties arise because I can’t do them for even a short time, nor can I do them frequently, & so I must use a wheelchair to be able to get around. Is time or distance considered a limit under this definition of disability?

Then we have the medical definition of disability. This model of disability defines an illness or disability as the result of a physical condition, which is intrinsic to the individual & which may reduce the individual’s quality of life and cause clear disadvantages to the individual.

This is somewhat more inclusive towards people who have chronic illnesses like myself, except that many of these illnesses are still lacking a biochemical or physiological explanation, so could be denied the status of intrinsic physical condition. It also fails to encapsulate environmental factors such as being involved in a traffic accident. While perhaps the physical damage is intrinsic, a large metal box on wheels causing said damage is distinctly extrinsic. In addition and somewhat similar to the dictionary definition, there is also an emphasis on disadvantages & limitations. Once again, we are weak & pitiful creatures with nothing to offer, & nothing can be done to help us.

Finally, we have the social definition of disability, as developed by the World Health Organisation in 2001 [SAME LINK]. They state disability to be an umbrella term for impairments (problematic body function or structure), activity limitations, & participant restrictions. Quite how the last two points differ I’m still unclear upon, but what does come across in some of the examples used to explain them is that these limitations are not always intrinsic. For every aspect of disability like pain or fatigue is another aspect beyond our control, imposed upon us by an inaccessible society.

If you are a wheelchair user, a step is a barrier. There are ways of overcoming said barrier, namely a ramp. For a flight of steps a lift is often more appropriate, & as simply as that, the barrier is removed.

If you have a visual impairment, reading written words can be a barrier. A screen reader or brail can overcome that barrier.

If you have a hearing impairment, sign language or subtitles can overcome that barrier.

What comes to light through this social model, although it is by no means perfect, is that society is as disabling as the conditions that ail us. With the proper inclusion of accessibility features, many barriers can be reduced or removed altogether. At the end of the day disability will always be a disadvantage, but does it really have to be as big of a disadvantage as it is right now?

2 thoughts on “Defining Disability.

  1. I love this, especially your closing remark. I agree that all disabilities have their disadvantages, there’s no denying that. However, every article you read or definitions you look up, stigmatize to be these poor unfortunate souls. They never really discuss that every disability and every disabled person is different. We all have our different strengths and weaknesses and yet we all get categorized as these helpless beings.

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  2. I hate the fact that people with disabilities are looked on as weak. Yes their lives are challenging, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of contributing to society. I notice the looks most people give my son – ones of pity. He is much stronger and smarter than he looks! Thanks for sharing.

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