The Evolution of Disability

 What exactly is disability? If you follow the textbook definition, it’s simple a physical or mental impairment that limits someone’s ability in some way. That’s not exactly a text-book definition but whatever! The point is that, although the definition of disability is easily defined, explaining what disability is becomes increasingly complicated.

The way people think about disability has changed dramatically over the years. Around the 19th-20th century, disability was talked about more as a medical issue. And, when I say medical issue, I mean it was something undesirable and frowned upon. People with disabilities were described as broken members of society who couldn’t possibly help contributing in any meaningful way. There was no talk about disability pride or any discussion around disability as its own minority group.

The discussion of disability revolved around curing, or in many cases, segregating the disabled to asylums or workhouses; which are pretty much just disability prisons. Hardly anything was done to include the disabled in the community. In fact, laws, such as Ugly Laws, were made to ban those with several physical deformities being in public. The idea was that anyone with a several physical deformities was obviously a beggar. The irony is that the same people who created the laws are the ones who created the environment for the severally disabled to become beggars in the first place.

It wasn’t until the 1970s’, with the growth in popularity of the social sciences, that disability shifted away from the medical field and into more of an abstract concept. Now, the conversation was around the idea that a person isn’t disabled based on their physical or mental limitations. Instead, it is their environmental that creates disability. Anyone with a “disability” isn’t really “disabled”. It’s simply their environment that creates the disability.

Substandard environments for the disabled are often caused by society’s false perception of what it means to be disabled, which leads to stereotypes and disability discrimination. The fact that most public places lack accommodations for those with physical disabilities plays a major role in the difficulties of living with a disability.

Shifting disability from the medical field to a social one has positive and negative consequences. while it shatters the illusion that disability is bad, it also takes the focus away from the human body and creates more of an abstract idea of what disability is. People with disabilities become empowered by not viewing disability as an unwanted affliction, a common practice in the medical field. The true hardships come not from the disability, but by poor environmental conditions.

Criticism that’s often brought up with this new from of describing disability is that it ignores a person’s actual limitations. Yes, it’s true that if there were only ramps in the world a person in a wheelchair would have a much easier time. However, that person still can’t walk. It’s irrelevant that the environment is corrected so that his disability doesn’t become a burden. The fact is that a person’s disability, while the difficulty surrounding it might be assuaged by a better environment, is still prevalent and it’s important to acknowledge.

This is where the current form of disability comes into play. Now, the focus is on treating disability as a community, its own minority group. This does two things; one, it eliminates the damage done by the medical field by constructing the idea that disability is a bad thing. It also acknowledges the physical/mental impairments a person has instead of casting it aside as simply a social issue.

In short, disability is now seen as something to be celebrated among the community while an ever-growing sense of empowerment grows with people with disabilities. And, while the able-bodied population might still see disability as something undesirable, or something to be pitied, those who are disabled take pride in who they are. It is not a matter of overcoming one’s disability, but learning to live with a disability and know that the only negative aspect of the term “disability” is created by the same able-bodied devils who do nothing to help improve the environment in which the disabled live.

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LukeH View All →

I earned my M.A in English Lit from Gardner-Webb University in 2019. My writing mainly focuses on disability positivity. I enjoy sci-fi, fantasy and classic rock. Oh, and I’m also a part time phone sex operator. So, that’s a thing.

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