What Is a Disability?

Disabilities and chronic health problems are physical and/or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activity. Many disabilities are invisible, some might be temporary, while others are chronic debilitating conditions. For many graduate students with disabilities, coming forward about a chronic illness or impairment may feel risky, especially in an environment where performance is presented as the quintessential measure of success.

Three Models

Disability Studies posits three main models to understand how people perceive, experience, and represent disability:

The medical model centers the individual human body measured according the standards that the medical-scientific community has defined as “normal” biological functions. According to the WHO, a disability is “a reduction in health and/or functioning caused by an impairment that is defined as a problem with the normal biological operation of the body.” A purely “medical” model foregrounds therapeutic goals seeking to minimize the impairment within the individual person’s body, and to restore health and function (as near as possible). For example, a primarily medical approach might recommend that a person with impaired mobility receive physical therapy to reinforce the body’s range of movement, or perhaps mechanical equipment, such as a wheelchair or prostheses, to enable more mobility.

Critics say the medical model isolates and problematizes the disabled individual. Science and medicine have doubtless improved the quality of life for many. But the uncritical embrace of scientific-medical standards also frames disability as a problem within impaired individuals that we should fix by adopting diagnostic labels and receiving individual treatments, while leaving intact the social structures and cultural practices that de-valorize and marginalize anyone who does not fit a particular prototype of able-bodied normalcy.

In contrast with the medical model, the social model centers the environment. The social model shifts the onus for change onto the society that is built to exclude certain individuals from moving freely and participating fully in their communities because of ableist attitudes, exclusionary cultures, inaccessible architectures, or other such “constructed” barriers. The social model assumes that most environments are human made to accommodate what is deemed “standard functioning levels” for members of a society. If these environments built in a way that excludes some people from full participation, then the members of that society have a shared responsibility to rebuild the environment to accommodate a wider diversity of human experiences.

For example, when people who move about with mobility supports, such as wheelchairs, encounter only stairs leading to their destination, they experience “disability.” The problem inheres in the environment itself and the assumptions that led to that design. The community solves the problem by replacing the stairs with different architectural features, like ramps or elevators, that accommodate a much wider range of mobility. The aim is to rehabilitate communities rather than rehabilitating the people who are “disabled.”

Critics of the social model argue that focusing exclusively on environmental features downplays the contributions bodily impairments may inevitably make to people’s experience of “disability.” Chronic pain or fatigue, for instance, can often be partially or temporarily alleviated by medications, and flexible designs can make the experience of pain or fatigue more manageable for the person, but the experience of pain or fatigue seldom disappears.

The medical model alone does not account for the social norms and built environments that actively exclude people who do not meet normative expectations. The social model alone does not account for the embodied realities that people with impairments may experience even if many of the barriers in their environments are mitigated. And neither the medical or the social models account for the political relations that enable medical advances, sustain communities, and drive social change. Medical advances don’t just happen in a laboratory vacuum, nor do designs for infrastructures exist apart from imaginative deliberation, nor can a community choose a full-functioning legal system from a standardized menu, to treat more people more fairly, and inclusively, in every context. A sociopolitical model emphasizes that people with impairments rely on deeply relational economies of care that are politically sustained, that communities negotiate which social priorities they value in order to make possible and promote any type of scientific advances or build and maintain any of the infrastructures that we share.

A plurality of disciplinary perspectives bring disability into conversation with core theories in such fields as medicine, physical therapy, psychology, law, sociology, anthropology, architecture, and more. A sociopolitical framework also recognizes that disability can have a positive valence: People with disability bring to bear unique insights about how to excel as human beings and promote human flourishing (Garland-Thomson, 2012; MacIntyre, 1999; Wise, 2014a; Wise, 2016).

Our Own Definitions...

Disabilities are as diverse and unique as there are people. Each person with disabilities understands their conditions and their relationship with their conditions differently. Here are some of the ways we define “disability”:

  • A disability is a piece of paper the doctors gave me.
  • Defining disability is hard, since calling it a ‘disability’ feels weird. I’ve never known anything else.
  • Disabilities are things that I have to deal with every day that other people don’t.
  • A disability is what makes it impossible for me to do things that most people can do, like sleep, breathe, talk, or plan; my disability is also the only way that I know how to do things in a world that sleeps, breathes, talks, and plans their lives entirely differently. My disability is not who I am, and at the same time I would not be who I am without what it has made me to see, feel, hear, and understand, which other people may not.
  • I like the social model of disability. ‘Disability’ in this context refers to the prevailing social structures that do not properly accommodate for the needs of individuals with impairments.