The Two Definitions of Disability – Dissertation pt. 1

I got the bright idea to put my dissertation on my blog from LucyWritesWords (go read her dissertation, it’s good).

The question I attempt to answer is: Does the social model of disability allow for appropriate emotional reactions towards impairment? In fewer words: Can I be angry at my disability? 

There are a few things I would change if I re-did it now but I won’t edit it much for the blog. This is part one of six. Enjoy!


“Anger is loaded with information and energy […] When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar”

Lorde, 1987

The social model of disability has often been seen as the inspiration for disabled rights activists and disabled people[1]. Due to its change of focus from the disabled person to society, there is now something to do about disability rather than angling for a cure that may never come in one’s lifetime.

It has also come under much criticism in recent years for not taking into account the problem of impairment and because of this, missing out on both a large number of disabilities and the personal experience one has with their disability. As a way to explore this problem, I will ask whether the social model allows for appropriate emotional reactions towards impairment.

I will argue that it does not particularly in cases of anger and sadness and as a result we should move on from the social model. To do this I will

  1. First, explain the social model of disability and why it has been so heavily adopted.
  2. In the second section, I will present Martha Nussbaum’s framework for emotions as it will prove useful for the remainder of the essay. From this, the following sections will aim to establish that it can be appropriate to be angry at an impairment even though it is not an agent.
  3. The following section will answer the objection that you should not be angry because it is harmful and epistemically unproductive (it does not produce knowledge).
  4. Afterwards, I will briefly demonstrate a similar conclusion holds for sadness and ask whether the social model can survive despite my argument’s conclusion.

The Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability can be stated briefly:

In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.

(UPIAS, 1976. P.3)

The social model states that society causes disability by the way it is arranged and how it includes or excludes individuals with mental or physical impairments. This creates three important dichotomies (Shakespeare, 2013, p.216).

First, impairment is separated from disability. Impairment is the limited function of a physical or mental attribute and disability is the restriction of activity caused by the arrangement of society. (Oliver, 1996, p.22) Impairment is a personal attribute. Under ordinary modes of thinking, a ‘cure’ would mean eliminating the impairment rather than the disability. On the other hand, ‘disability’ is a public and structural problem. With this model, people are regularly excluded or disadvantaged by society because it is not correctly designed with impairments in mind. For example, should a wheelchair user need access to the first floor of a building but is only faced with stairs, the design of the building is disabling her. If, however, the building has a working lift, she can get around without any restrictions meaning she is no longer disabled by the arrangement of the building. This means ‘disability’ is something which can be greatly eliminated or reduced by changing the arrangement of society.  Perhaps, then, it is best to accept impairment and direct our attention towards social change. The divide between impairment and disability can also be seen as a parallel to the sex/gender divide started by feminists in the 1970s (Shakespeare, 2006, p.29).

Following from this is the second dichotomy. Disabled people are distinguished from non-disabled people because they are an oppressed group. There are three main barriers disabled people face: attitudinal, physical and institutional. In addition to this, non-disabled people are often the cause of such oppression because society is designed against the disabled. Perhaps not explicitly but that is the case nonetheless. This is backed up by history with a number of examples. It ranges from children being bullied because they are physically or mentally ‘different’ to disabled people being disproportionately unemployed[2] to simply not being able to navigate buildings or roads effectively or safely. Again, another parallel can be drawn with other oppressed groups such as ethnic minorities who are unable to function in society in an equal manner because they are excluded due to their race.

The third difference is with what is most commonly thought of as disability – the ‘medical’ or ‘individual’ model of disability. With this model, impairment and disability are much closer. Impairment stays the same but disability is defined as:

Any restriction or lack, resulting from an impairment, of ability to perform any activity or within the range considered normal for a human being. (Emphasis added)

(World Health Organisation, 1980)

The most common view among the non-disabled, which states that disability is the limitation which arises from impairments. For example, the wheelchair user’s disability mentioned earlier would be her lack of properly functioning legs. In difference with the social model, the medical model has a much greater focus on the individual’s body and its supposed faults. When we look for an intervention to include a disabled person into society, the focus is on a cure or compensation. This, it has been argued, is often a cause of social exclusion and with some directed thought, clear why many disabled people are opposed to the medical model. If impairment is permanent or long lasting, saying something is ‘wrong’ with them is seen as a comment on their person rather than the impairment. If they do not have a normal body, they must be abnormal and demand special attention to compensate for that.

There are many benefits to the social model. First, it allows people to point their attention towards injustices which disabled people do face in their everyday lives. For example, not having their testimony of their personal experiences taken seriously. Rather than society simply excluding people because they are disabled or treating them poorly, it is what causes disability. If this is true, the ‘cure’ for disability is not hoping for a cure which many never come, it is through demanding civil rights they are entitled to.

Second, it often has a great impression on how disabled people view themselves. Some people note that they feel liberated and no longer feel bad for having a disability. “Nothing is wrong with me. It’s society’s fault” is the attitude sometimes realised (Crow, 1992, p.2). They can also direct their attention towards things they can change by going into social activism or learning more about disability and the lives of disabled people. In a sense, it also helps that, if no cure can be found, we no longer need to look for it.

Thirdly, it sets a clear agenda for social change (Shakespeare, 2013, p.217). A key example of this is the disabled rights act of 1995 (2006, p.30). If people become more aware of the injustices they face, they often try finding ways to alter the world so no more injustice is experienced.

With the social model, an implicit discussion of impairment can be teased out. That is, there is no discussion of impairment involved in the social model because it is seen as unimportant. It seems that impairment is a neutral (or possibly positive) attribute of a person because impairment cannot in itself be disabling. It is society which disables people with impairments. Therefore, it has been criticised on the basis that it does not properly take into account the experience of impairment.

For this paper, we will find that it does not properly consider the range of justified emotional experiences people have with their impairments. However, this does not necessitate a return to the medical model. The remainder of the paper will aim to answer a few things. First, how we might want to view emotions. Second, whether the social model excludes certain emotions towards impairment and third if it does, what does that mean for the social model of disability? Does it need to be abandoned?


[1] Using the terms ‘people with disabilities’ and ‘disabled people’ inspires controversy regardless of its use. In the first instance, you have the claim you should ‘see the person and not the disability’ on the other, you have people who are being disabled by society. As a result, I will use them interchangeably with no normative force behind them.

[2] See ‘The Poverty Site’ Work and Disability: United Kingdom (2011) for statistics detailing disability limits people who lack but want work much more than gender, age and parent status.


Do you think the social or medical model of disability are useful? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!

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