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October 14, 2014
by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Disability Isn't a Bad Word

October 14, 2014 02:55 by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Dealing with disability is a challenge, both for the person affected as well as those close to them, and even to strangers who come across individuals with disabilities in the wider world.  It’s easy to look at someone who’s body or mind functions differently than what we are accustomed to interacting with and feel sorry for them. But being different doesn’t necessarily mean that being disabled is wrong. In fact people who struggle with a wide range of physical and mental handicaps often live full and rich lives, giving strength and inspiration to those around them.

Insiders and Outsiders

In terms of disability and culture, there is a natural understanding of insider and outsider (Smart, 2001). Those who are part of the disability community, including not only the affected individual but also their family and caregivers, are on the “inside.” Those who have not been initiated into this world, one which is often lived in a very different way than the mainstream culture, are on the “outside.” Most people in our culture are outsiders. This understanding is natural and is an outgrowth of the unfamiliar nature of disabling conditions, which are as a percentage equal to a very small sector of society’s membership. The reality of those relatively small numbers of individuals with disabilities is exacerbated by the realities of many disabling conditions, which because of health and mobility limitations often require a nearly homebound existence. The small number of individuals coupled with the limitations of their interaction with the outside world form a vicious cycle that easily leads to isolation, both physically and socially.

Is Disability a Necessarily a Personal Tragedy?

Disability is often viewed as a “personal tragedy” in Western culture. Individuals who are struck by a disabling condition are seen as broken individuals who are to be pitied and coddled. (Oliver, 1996). Disabled individuals challenge our ideas of what is normal or acceptable, and redefine the parameters of what kinds of lifestyles can lead to happiness and fulfillment. It is widely assumed that those who suffer from impairments are not of value to society, but rather a burden to be carried. History has not traditionally been kind to individuals with disabilities. Often they have been seen as nothing more than a burden upon society, and human history is littered with examples of this. (Gallagher, 1995). In the post World War II cultural revolution, disability has been redefined in a largely positive manner. Individuals who were once extraordinarily marginalized and/or institutionalized are now pushed to integrate into society in more and more meaningful levels. (Oliver, 1996). Of course this is the ultimate objectification and outsider understanding of individuals with disabilities. After World War II, the onslaught of improved medical technology not only allowed individuals with disabilities to live longer, it also improved their quality of life and made it possible for them to participate more fully in society. This revolution of technology was a big factor in the development of the disability movement and in fact in the changing societal understanding of disability. Doesn’t just reading the description of the Nazi view of individuals with disabilities send chills down your spine? While no one would say that modern Western society is rooted in Hitler’s understanding of disability, we come back to the notion of “personal tragedy” as the prevailing view of individuals with handicaps. In this modern, purportedly inclusive culture, disability is a bad word.

Disability as a Social Construct

There is an argument to be made, and in fact that is made, that says that disability is a social construct (Oliver, 1996). Take a moment to process that. Is disability real, or is it like so many other seemingly hard and fast rules that society has long held tight to - imaginary? Now there is certainly something to be said for the reality of the physical limitations that some individuals face. But even seemingly impossible to overcome barriers that are met with determination and will can in the end be overcome. It’s not unusual to hear a news story about a veteran who learned to walk after losing a limb, or a stroke victim who learned to talk after being given no hope. Disability is malleable. It’s not some hard and fast, stonewall of a limitation. There is so much possibility, so much latitude in the way that it can manifest, depending upon the encouragement and determination of the people surrounding an individual with disabilities, in addition to their own will and grit. And as society has become more accepting of individuals with varying levels of physical and cognitive impairment, that success is built upon and nurtured. New treatments are developed and implemented. Oliver (1996) argues that disability is completely created by society.

‘This new paradigm involves nothing more or less fundamental than a switch away from focusing on the physical limitations of particular individuals to the way the physical and social environment impose limitations upon certain categories of people’ (Oliver, 1981: 28).

Here he’s making the case that is our understanding of disability that creates the limitations. Think about it this way - if our world were more accessible to individuals with wheelchairs, would we see those individuals as suffering from that “personal tragedy” in the same way? Or would our sense of their limitations be less because they were more equally admitted into society? What about deaf or blind individuals - would their lives be as tragic if society offered them a more accessible way to interact? Oliver was the first to extoll these ideas in academia, and the disability rights movement has spread far and wide today. But still, we continue to see that more work can and must be done to create a positive social understanding, and through that a social acceptance.

Valuable Contributions

These individuals can be valued contributors to our society and have a great deal to offer not only in terms of forwarding the moral turpitude of the people, but also as monetary contributors to economic development, as argued by Jonathan Wolff (2009). Wolff puts forth the notion that people with cognitive disabilities, while often in need of the support of society in terms of services and finances, do not need to simply be passive wards of the state. Rather there are methods of integrating these individuals into society and offering them flexible and accomplishable work options. He points out the United Kingdom’s system of “self directed support,” which allows individuals with cognitive disabilities to integrate into the work system. By creating these kinds of opportunities for individuals with disabilities, we are recognizing them as equals, and in fact creating opportunities for them to seize their own equality.  In fact according to researchers, people with disabilities often just need only slightly further help than what we provide to them in order to become more capable and contributing members of society (Thornton, 2005). This same research has shown that individuals often advocate for themselves, asking for the therapy or training which would allow them to contribute to and participate in society in more meaningful ways.

All of this together should make us realize that disability is not the same thing as dependency, and that the societal value of individuals with disabilities is more than what it is widely perceived to be. Our views of individuals with disabilities affect more than just the way that we interact with them, they actually change the way that they experience their disability.  Starting today, let’s change the way that we view disability. Disability is not a bad word.


Gallagher, H. 1995: By Trust Betrayed: Patients, physicians and the licence to kill in the Third Reich.

Arlington, VA: Vandamere Press.

Oliver, M. 1981: A New Model of the Social Work Role in Relation to  Disability. In J. Campling (ed.), The

handicapped Person: A New Perspective for Social Workers. London: RADAR, 19-32. *

Oliver, M. 1996: Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. London: Macmillan.

Ravey, M. (2007). Overcoming disabling barriers: 18 years of disability and society. Learning Disability

Practice, 10(2), 2-28.

Smart, J. (2001). Disability, Society, and the Individual. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers

Wolff, J. (2009), Cognitive disability in a society of equals. Metaphilosophy, 40: 402–415.

About the Author

Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Autumn Robinson is a writer with an MA in Special Education, and PhD student who lives in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina with her three young boys, special needs daughter and loving husband. She is also a former special education teacher.

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