There are and have been a lot of ways to define disability. Typically, disability has been defined through the eugenic model, medical model, charity model, rights model, social model and radical model. And these perspectives sometimes overlap or even compliment each other (for example, many people who work under the rights model are also proponents of the social model and the charity model and medical model often work to reinforce each other).
Most people think it is easy to define disability. They think it is some sort of loss or abnormal physical or mental functioning.
What about the groups of people who live on the margins of the definition, such as psych-survivors, psych-consumers and people with mental health issues, people with intellectual disabilities, deaf people, those with minor physical or intellectual disabilities, people with non-apparent physical disabilities, and those with chronic illnesses, among others. Are these people disabled?
who is and who is not disabled has become an important social question, particularly for legislators. They seek to define disability in order to provide (in)access to civil rights and provide income support to those who cannot work (their definition).
Typically, when there are real or substantial benefits for disabled people, government excludes many, if not most of us. When the legislation is unenforceable or pays lip service to the rights of disabled people it is wide reaching, as those in power will lose nothing by allowing an inclusive definition.
For example, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA) states that:
‘disability’ means, (a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness…(b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability, (c) a learning disability…(d) a mental disorder…
The ODA is a relatively meaningless piece of legislation that is supposed to ensure access for disabled people.
The Ontario Disability Support Program Act (ODSP), on the other hand, provides income supports to disabled people. It defines a person as being disabled if:
(a) the person has a substantial physical or mental impairment that is continuous or recurrent and expected to last one year or more;
(b) the direct and cumulative effect of the impairment on the person’s ability to attend to his or her personal care, function in the community and function in a workplace, results in a substantial restriction in one or more of these activities of daily living; and
(c) the impairment and its likely duration and the restriction in the person’s activities of daily living have been verified by a person with the prescribed qualifications.
Where people benefit, the definition of disability is very restricted and adheres to the Medical Model of disability. Where people benefit little or not at all, the definition of disability is very broad.
Disablism impacts disabled people in lots of different ways. For instance, disabled people with white, male, class, cis, and/or straight privilege will experience disablism very differently than people of colour, women, poor and working class people, trans people, and queer or LGB people. Those of us who live in the Global North will experience disability very differently than people in the Global South. And, those of us who are non-Indigenous people, particularly those of us living in settler states, will experience disability very differently than Indigenous people. Privilege is an intervening factor.
Here are some common ways that disablism impacts disabled people’s lives:
Erasure of Sexuality and Reproduction
This site has an overview of the main models of disability and issues that affect disabled people. I talk about them in a lot more detail in my book: Disability Politics and Theory.
Links to Models of Disability:
Other in-text links on this page: