DEFINITIONS OF DISABILITY IN SOCIAL SCIENCES

Postgraduate

Introduction 

Take a look at the picture above. What do you see? A disabled person? Probably. But why do you think the person is disabled? Because of the wheelchair? Most likely. This can be called an everyday life conceptualization of disability. The visible aid, in this case the wheelchair, identifies the person as disabled. By “checking out” a person’s functions and appearance, we identify some people as abled, others as disabled (Davis, 1995).

However, a relatively aware disability researcher can actually see no less than five different definitions of disability in this picture. Of course, s/he will see the same kind of conceptualization as the layman. Within disability research, this type of disability definition is often called a functional definition, because it focuses on a person’s functional limitation (e.g., Abberley, 1991). Second, the disability researcher also recognizes a definition that conceives of disability as an interaction between an individual with an impairment and an environment that lacks adaptations. This means that a person with an impairment only finds him-/herself in a disabling situation when the surroundings are inaccessible. In the picture, this is illustrated by the interaction


between the person in the wheelchair and the stairs. Thus, a disability is nothing a person has per se, rather it is an interaction that appears in some situations but not in others. This is often called a relative or environmental definition of disability, because disability is seen as a relation between a person and her/his environment (e.g., Söder, 1987). Third, the researcher will also identify a model according to which the stairs themselves are thought to create the disability, without any connection to the person. Disability, in this case, is the same as barriers in society that keep people with impairments from fully participating in society. This definition is often called the social model of disability (e.g., Oliver, 1990). Furthermore, the researcher will see that this person has been processed by the welfare state. S/he has a mobility aid, the wheelchair, because s/he has been administratively defined (e.g., Stone, 1985) as disabled, i.e. s/he is disabled because s/he is using an aid given to “disabled people”.