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.
Disability Studies posits three main models to understand how people perceive, experience, and represent disability:
- – The Medical Model of Disability –
- – The Social Model of Disability –
- – The Sociopolitical or Ecological Model of 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.
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.