The concept of disability has changed significantly through history. At one point, disability was seen as the result of sin, either by the person with the disability or his or her parents. Disability was associated with guilt and shame, and people with disabilities were hidden away.
Merriam-Websters definition of disability: limitation in the ability to pursue an occupation because of a physical or mental impairment; lack of legal qualification to do something; or a disqualification, restriction or disadvantage. Most of the time, we apply these definitions to a person who has a disability. What if it is society that has the disability, not the individual?
With the advent of modern medicine, a medical understanding of disability developed. In a medical model of disability, the person with a disability is seen as having an illness, which presumably should be cured. The person with a disability, as someone who is sick or diseased, is excused from normal life and responsibilities such as working, family obligations and household maintenance.
The approach of the Social Security Administration supports the idea of disability as something that excludes one from a normal life. To fit the administrations definition of disability, a person must be able to prove that he or she is incapable of gainful employment. The inference is that by having a disability, one remains outside mainstream society.
Yet there is another way to view disability. This view considers disability as a normal part of life. After all, most of us will have a disability, whether temporary or permanent, at some time in our life. As many people with disabilities will attest, their disabilities are integral to what makes them who they are. It isnt the disability that needs to be changed. The physical and attitudinal barriers people with disabilities face are what need to change.
For example, people who are unable to walk may still be able to move around as much as anyone with the use of wheelchairs and other assistive technology. The inability to use their limbs may be less of a limitation than heavy doors that dont open automatically or stairs that keep them from a building.
Similarly, culture and environment can dictate whether something is a disability. In a culture where healers and shamans regularly interact with a spirit world, hearing voices isnt a disability. Only in societies where reading is essential to daily functioning is a learning disability recognized. In our society, a vision impairment that necessitates wearing glasses isnt considered a disability, but a mobility impairment that requires a person to use a walker is. Disability is defined by context. It follows, then, that what makes something a disability is external to the individual.
If we presumed that people with disabilities were able to live full and enriching lives, participate fully in their communities and have adult responsibilities, couldnt we make it so by removing the societal barriers that we create? When we view disability as a natural part of life, our entire approach to disabilities has to change.
Tara Kiene is the director of case management with Community Connections Inc.