Today’s entry in the Lexicon features the social model of disability. Much of what I have to say here dovetails nicely with the entry on medicalization.
For much of the last two centuries, disability has been understood in social terms according to an allopathic medical model. By this I mean to say that disabilty has perpetually been defined as a pathology, as a lack, as a dysfunction. Plato argues in the Republic that one cannot define justice without experiencing injustice, and disability has generally been comprehended in terms of the lack of function that a “normal” person might enjoy. A person whose foot has been amputated is therefore disabled because they lack the function that a “normal” person with two feet would enjoy in that foot.
Over the last several decades (or even less — disability studies is quite a young field of inquiry), theorists have begun to challenge this medical model of disability. They argue, instead, that disability is largely socially constructed, that it is a function of social practices and attitudes rather than actual physical impairment. What does this mean?
Consider, for example, what the lived experience of disability would be like if every building was accessible to disabled persons, if every bathroom in every building was accessible. What if every curb had adequate cuts for persons in wheelchairs? What if all public schools provided adequate access to interpreters fluent in sign language? What if all restaurants had menus in Braille?
The point, which to me seems undeniable as far as it goes, is that some of the lived experiences of disability are constructed by the social realities of living as a disabled person. If, for example, every building was actually accessible to persons in wheelchairs, the limitations resulting from the person’s impairment would be profoundly different. The accuracy of this perspective is apparent in the divergent experiences of disabled persons touring countries with widely different accessibility profiles. In Great Britain or the Scandinavian nations, for example, which generally spend much more time, effort, and $$ in enhancing accessibility, the extent of the limitations for a disabled persons is likely to very different than, for example, in the U.S. or Japan.