What is disability?

January 12, 2011

Bob Williams-Findlay

Bob Williams-Findlay

What is disability? If you were to ask a mixed group of disabled and non-disabled people that question, the chances are that the different answers given could almost add up to the same number as those present in the room! The problem is that there are many different and often opposing ways of defining disability.

In general terms these definitions tend to fall into two basic approaches. In the traditional approach, developed mainly by non-disabled medical and social care professionals, the focus is on to what degree a person’s condition or impairment prevents them from fulfilling the roles and expectations usually carried out by so called ‘normal people’ (sic). This is how the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) sees it.

This approach has been criticised as it tends to present disabled people in ways which are often considered negative and, as a result, increases the possibility that a disabled person could experience either discrimination or be forced to accept segregated services. The emphasis here is on disabled people’s lack of ability, caused by their condition, to ‘fit into’ the mainstream activities

Disabled people argue this approach misrepresents the facts. The alternative ‘social model’ approach has as its starting point the recognition that often having a condition or impairment does have an impact upon our lives. However, the trouble has been that this impact has often been viewed wrongly or as the individual’s own problem by those who create what is sometimes called the ‘social environment’ – these people design structures and organise activities within our communities.

If more time was spent ‘taking into account’ how the design and organisation of things affected disabled people then we might see real change. The emphasis within the social model approach is on looking at the differing ways in which people with impairments encounter what we call ‘disabling barriers’.

Disabling barriers are created when not enough attention is paid to the issues which impact on disabled people’s lives. For example, their access needs, the surroundings in which disabled people find themselves in or simply the negative attitudes people hold. Our conditions or impairments may reduce our functional ability , but more often than not, the disabling factor is external and could be reduced or removed by planning ‘disabled people in’ or if needs be, adapting the world in which we live.

Bob Williams-Findlay

Source: republished by Miss Dennis Queen

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3 Responses to “What is disability?”

  1. Julia C Says:

    Thank you Bob.

    I’ve been thinking recently about how for me capitalism itself is a, if not the, major disabling barrier – to my employment in particular. With all this media hype about ‘work-shy scroungers’ I’ve been thinking a lot about why I can’t sustain even the most part-time of jobs. Yes a bed in the office and permission to nap on it regularly and for as long as needed would help but especially as my impairment is largely invisible this would cause problems with co-workers, many of whom get insufficient rest in our driven society. And at this point I won’t go into all the reasons why it would only partially solve the problem.

    The truth is that I cannot work at a pace or with the regularity capitalism needs to produce profit or ‘stick to budget’. My necessarily slow, erratic pace of life, with long periods semi-comatose, means that though I can sometimes do some work my labour would not make the employer enough money to compete in the global capitalist system. So as far as I can see, only the replacement of this system with a society which put people before profit, based on Marx’s injunction ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ would enable me to participate in working life. I’d be really interested in other people’s comments on this.

  2. Bob Williams-Findlay Says:

    Thank you, Julia C.

    I would suggest the capitalist system – its modes of production, wealth destribution, etc. – does indeed underpin disabled people’s social position within society.

    Those who can “survive” within the system are often ignored by the State and left to defend for themselves – those who are socially and economically excluded are often the ones targeted by the media and governments. In my opinion the experience of disability and poverty are interlinked.

    Your quotation from Marx underpins my general approach – the Government seems to be saying: “to maintain greed, take from those in most need”!

  3. jacky barfoot Says:

    Yes, it is societies attitude towards a long term health condition or a persons disability that makes it a disability.
    From the person with the illness, they can function and get by, by working around their impairment and usually they develope a coiping stratergy to live by that helps them to guage and work around their health issues, then along come the ‘normals’ so to speak, and they create barriers to this coping stratergy, so unableing the person with the illness and making their lives difficult


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