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Social Constructs of Disability

What is a disability? When asked this question most of us think of what’s commonly known as the medical model of disability. The medical model focuses on the individual and is seen in most common definitions of the word. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” 

When we look at disabilities not as an individual/medical issue, but as one that society has created, or at the very least contributed to, then we gain a different perspective. For instance, many individuals who are deaf do not view the inability to hear as a disability. While this doesn’t apply to all, and is certainly a generalization, many in the deaf community see sign language as nothing more than an alternate form of communication; it is society’s reliance on sounds and lack of inclusion that puts them at a disadvantage in certain situations. 

Examples of exclusion of people with disabilities are abundant. Although the politically correct way to speak about this population is known as “person first” language, saying person with a disability, not disabled person, some argue against this. The position is that they are disabled not because of a diagnosis, but because society disables them by not making the environment accessible. For example: a person who uses a wheelchair goes to a local festival and can only travel down 30% of the paths due to lack of accessibility, has difficulty locating accessible restrooms, etc. Looking through this lens we can begin to see how with the right changes, people with disabilities (or disabled people as some prefer) can be included. 

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, and while it was a monumental event with a great impact nationally, there is still much to be done. A building may technically be accessible to a person using a wheelchair, but is it really accessible if the door with a ramp is in the back of the building? It’s great to have an automatic door at the entrance, but what about the rest of the facility? Often people think that it’s too expensive to modify existing structures or to make certain accommodations, but that’s not always the case. We can also look at it a different way: Universal Design is good for everyone. Different modes of communication during trainings, etc are good not only for people with disabilities, but also those who simply learn differently. Curb cutouts on sidewalks help people with wheelchairs and walkers as well as parents with strollers. The more inclusive we are as a society, the more we show that we value everyone, and the more people can fully participate…and it’s beneficial to everyone.

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