Understanding Disability (1)


Here’s something I have written before, and I will no doubt come back to and reflect on. It has been published in similar form as part of several public documents, and is here for you to draw on (see ‘Share This’ below) and discuss.

Disability combines personal experience and social process. It is the interaction between how the world functions and how people function.

Traditionally disability was seen as an individualised “health problem”, a matter of personal tragedy and neediness for the attention of medical and welfare authorities. By contrast, a modern understanding of disability also views it as a social process, much like poverty.

Aspects of our personal function used to be called “disabilities” and are now called “impairments”.

An impairment is an ongoing reduction, absence or socially-devalued difference of personal function. Impairment means a person may have difficulty doing some things in their daily life, like moving around, hearing, learning or socialising.

Those difficulties are often reduced by doing things differently or using forms of support including equipment and human services. Most disabled people are impaired in only certain aspects of daily living, and have other personal strengths.

Impairment is usually not something that can be “treated” or “cured” through health services, although rehabilitation services may be helpful for some people.

Impairment comes about in many ways, including birth, illness, accident and ageing – and it has always been a normal part of human life.

However, social attitudes play a large part. People function differently, but some differences tend to be socially valued, such as the abnormal physical function of athletes, while others are not valued, like using methods of communication other than speech. Human rights models are one way to understand that.

Impairment does not ’cause’ disability – any more than race causes racism.

A high degree of impairment (such as total blindness) does not necessarily correlate with a high degree of disability across different settings (like work, home, transport, communication, civic participation).

Disability is experienced when a person with impairments interacts with settings that have not anticipated diverse needs.

People are resourceful and adaptable, but there are limits to our ability to influence our surroundings. Often those most affected by barriers are least able to remove them.

Rather than seeking to “fix” people, it makes more sense to design and manage all settings so that they meet everyone’s needs, and to remove barriers that prevent people being able to contribute and participate on a fair footing.

This approach is reflected throughout the New Zealand Disability Strategy (2001) and in the New Zealand-influenced United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (2006).

The Convention’s Preamble says:

“…disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

The New Zealand Disability Strategy puts it like this:

“Disability is the process which happens when one group of people create barriers by designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other people have. Our society is built in a way that assumes that we can all move quickly from one side of the road to the other; that we can all see signs, read directions, hear announcements, reach buttons, have the strength to open heavy doors and have stable moods and perceptions.”

I’m interested in hearing how you understand and explain disability.

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