Deconstructing Disability

Deconstructing Disability

The word disability is often paired with synonymous words like “deficit,” “impairment,” “inability,” and so forth. But, why do we have these particular thoughts? The image of others can often be influenced by society. But, what if we challenged the standard definition of disability? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020) defines disability as,“any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” Zooming in more closely on the definition of disability, words like “impairment,” “restrictions,” and “difficult” stand out. Not surprised right? Society placed unwarranted low expectations on individuals with a disability, where standards are set lower than their non-disabled peers. And, when/if they do perform better than expected, it is seen as miraculous, or inspiring. Society has fed us with the idea that an individual with a disability is brave for trying and inspiring for succeeding. An individual with a disability should be able to watch television, go to the park, eat a sandwich, and do activities without needing to prove themselves to be able.

But, can you imagine a world without disability? We traditionally understand disability in the sense that there is something “wrong” with the individual, whether it is a cognitive impairment or a physical difference. But, what if disability was understood to be caused by environmental restrictions? Then, the definition for disability would be written something like, “any environmental change that limits a body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” Can we imagine disability to be defined this way? Is it possible that the environment is held responsible for these limitations rather than the cause being the condition?

For a short historical moment, an environment existed where the word disability temporarily vanished. Martha’s Vineyard adopted a village sign-language, which was used by all individuals who lived on the island. Both the deaf and hearing used Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) to communicate. For a short while, in 1952, a part of society removed the label of disability (New England Historical Society, 2020). This opens up the possibility of changing the definition of disability. If we first look to change the environment rather than the individual, then it eliminates individuals from being labeled as disabled. 

So, let’s challenge our attitudes, change our perceptions, and un-learn what we know about disability in order to re-create a new meaning. 

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