Ways of Thinking About Disability


There are many ways of thinking about disability—where it comes from, who and what it impacts, and how we create disability justice in our communities.

Disability is a Social Construct

Like race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other categories, disability is a social category, created by society.

But, wait? Isn’t a disability the same thing as a medical condition? Well, that’s one way of thinking about it…

Medical/ Individual Model of Disability

People often think of doctors and other health professionals as the ultimate “decider” of disability.

According to the Medical/ Individual Model of disability, disability is a personal issue, and the best thing society can do to help folks with disabilities is to figure out ways to fix or cure a disability. This idea of disability has dominated our approach towards disability in the United States for a long time.

Organizations sometimes create their own definitions of disability to decide who can access services. This definition varies widely at organizations and might be linked to individuals’ medical conditions, perceived ability to work, or how someone cares for themselves, among other things. This is another way the individual model of disability shows up.

What people don’t realize is that this is just one way of thinking about disability. There are more possibilities.

The Social Model: Disability is Caused by Barriers in Society

In the social model, disability is the experience of societal barriers and oppression based on the way people’s body/mind works. Society has defined a “normal” body/mind caters to it in attitudes, rules, and ways of doing things, leaving disabled people out.

The understanding that disability is a result of social and societal barriers  is referred to the Social Model of disability.

People who subscribe to the social model of disability believe that we must eliminate societal barriers for people with disabilities to truly have access and freedom in life. This idea spread through disability communities in the 70s and 80s and remains popular today.

A couple of common misconceptions arise when folks learn about the social model. 1) that any variation in ability is a disability and 2) that any experience of societal oppression is a disability. Neither of these are true.

We all have different abilities, talents, and skills. Disability in this context refers to a common experience of pervasive societal oppression based on how someone's mind/body works. And while many people, including people with disabilities, experience discrimination based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, and so on, disability refers to oppression based on how someone’s body/mind functions.

Ableism is a distinct form of oppression based on (perceived or actual) mind/body ways of functioning, yet it can and has been used to uphold other forms of oppression. More on this soon.

Disability as a Political and Cultural Identity

It is with the rise of the social model that individuals began to self-identify as disabled to claim their common experience of societal barriers. Disabled people also manifest their unique personal and societal experiences into expressions of disability culturethe creation of disability-centered art, beauty, politics, and new ways of thinking about the world.

Criticism of the Social Model

However, disability activists have been challenging and criticizing the social model for some time. People have recognized that the social model:

  • Does not acknowledge some people’s experience of limitations, even in the most accessible environment, or create space for individual or medical support of people with disabilities.
  • Does not recognize how disability intersects with other identities, like race, gender, class and more to create unique experiences of oppression and expressions of resilience.
  • Emphasizes removing barriers and changing attitudes about disability without calling for change in the underlying ways we relate as communities.

Disability Justice: Holistic, Intersectional, and Interdependent

Recognizing these gaps and the need for a more holistic framework, LGBTQ disabled people of color articulated the Principles of Disability Justice.

Intersectionality and interdependence are core to this way of understanding disability.

Intersectionality is not a new idea. It was pioneered by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a leading scholar of Critical Race Theory and an attorney who has written extensively for decades on the intersections of oppression. She created the term intersectionality in her 1989 article on how Black women's experiences are erased in single-issue movements. She continues to speak about the urgency of recognizing intersectionality today. Her work on racism, sexism, and classism powerfully emphasizes centering the experiences of people experiencing multiple forms of oppression to move towards true justice.

Naming intersectionality in a disability context recognizes that ableism and other forms of oppression are interwoven. To eliminate disability-related oppression, we must follow the leadership and center the needs of people impacted by multiple forms of oppression.

Interdependence means that we all rely on each other to get our needs met and calls on us to recognize and honor this way of being. For instance, did you grow the food you are eating today? Or produce the electricity you’re using? Humans need each other to survive, the disability justice movement asks us to recognize this truth and celebrate our interdependence and unique intrinsic value as people in communities.

Why Does it Matter?

Today, we’ve explored three ways of understanding disability. They are certainly not the only ways out there. The way we think about disability is influenced by our experiences and cultures, our upbringing and our relationships.

Today, I leave you with questions to consider in the days and years to come:

  • Why does it matter how we think about disability?
  • How might it connect to the ways we understand ourselves?
  • How might it change the ways we create our communities?

Thank you to Northwest Health Foundation’s Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative for their recommended readings, several of which are featured in this month’s tip.