Why Disability Identity is Important

Why Disability Identity is Important

People tend to approach disability from one of two perspectives.

First, there’s the medical model wherein disability is perceived as an unfortunate personal problem, one that must be fixed in the medical realm. It is an illness, a disease, an injury or disorder that forms the bond between patient and doctor. Beyond the field of medicine, there is nothing anyone can do to right the unlucky circumstances of the stricken patient.

Then, there’s the social model, and it suggests that disability actually manifests at the point where people with different bodies and/or physical, cognitive, or other limitations interact with the world around them. Adherents of this philosophy view injuries, diseases, and other bodily imperfections as natural and inevitable, thus modifying the built environment and social structures to accommodate people with different bodies and limitations is the surest way to mitigate the difficulties they experience.

The distinction may feel abstract and needlessly intellectual, but its implications are sweeping. If you believe in the social model, then you can revel in the knowledge there are things we can do as a society to reduce the barriers faced by people living with a variety of impairments to such a degree that their impairments become inconsequential. Follow that same line of thinking, and you may find that maintaining the status quo, knowing in doing so you exclude more than a fifth of the population, amounts to discrimination. In the least, it is an unwillingness on the part of those in power, who shaped the world to their specifications, to grant equality to those who don’t fit an “ideal” norm.

In short, what you believe disability is either awakens you to centuries of oppression, or allows you to press on completely unaware of the thoughts and actions that contribute to the ongoing marginalization of people with disabilities.

It is likely no surprise, then, that the social model is the foundation for the Disability Rights Movement, the numerous successes of which have unlocked worlds of possibility to people with disabilities. We now have opportunities in education, employment, politics, social engagement. We can now live independently, raise families, pursue lofty ambitions. Which is all pretty impressive considering half a century earlier most if not all of the above were impossible; at that time, we would have been lucky simply to exist outside of a medical facility, or to roll more than a block without encountering an inaccessible curb. But none of this tremendous progress would have been possible without first changing our perspective and recognizing our collective identity as a disenfranchised minority group – for how could we have demanded our human rights if we didn’t know we had any?

We redefined disability, forged our identity, fought for decades to secure our equal rights, and now many forms of disability prejudice have been eradicated. But though we enjoy a wider array of opportunities than ever before, guaranteed by legislation less than 30 years old, the foundation of our movement, our very identity, is constantly under attack.

When diversity is mentioned, disability is often withheld. When we demand representation, we are told disability is different from other minorities. When we call out “ableism,” few pay attention.

And as we are denied our identity, our rights are called into question, the services on which our very lives depend are threatened. So it’s as important now as ever to remind our non-disabled peers and leaders that we have a collective identity, that we are more than mere accidents of nature to be treated in a hospital, out of view and out of mind. In fact, it is still the most radical thing we can do to claim our identity, to say we exist and we aren’t going anywhere.


Eric Clow

Art Spark Texas

2 thoughts on “Why Disability Identity is Important”

  1. Eric, I respectfully reject your assertion that what I believe disability is, has only 2 possible effects. As creative people, we can have a vast array of interpretations of disability, and consequently a commensurate number of effects. Personally, I don’t believe I have a disability. As a person with a high level of paralysis, I consider myself to be handicapped. As a wheelchair user, I get around fairly well in Austin. If I lived in perhaps a smaller community without accessible transportation, I surely would be handicapped by an inaccessible transportation system. I view disability in regards to my environment.

    I became paralyzed in 1972, before the Rehabilitation Act was signed and long before the ADA was passed. I had hoped the level of accessibility, by now, would be much greater. Unfortunately, I witness all sorts of discrimination. Some is passive discrimination, as with busses, we were told, “If you can get on the bus, you’re welcome.” They claimed they didn’t intentional keep people off. For others, it is a matter of ignorance. Either they didn’t know their business needed to be accessible, despite the 1990 enactment of the ADA, or they don’t know how to make it accessible, despite advice from me and my compadres. Then there are those who make inaccessible products, such as apps, without the benefit of any regulation.

    Your comments on diversity, sadly ring true.

    1. Gene,

      It was not my intention to say that one’s perception of disability has only two possible effects. My point was that if you believe in the social model of disability, you’re more likely to recognize discrimination against people with disabilities because you believe that disability is not exclusively a personal medical problem; you believe there are social constructs which exacerbate the existing differences or limitations inherent in diverse human beings. If you believe, rather, in the medical model, then you are more likely to view disability as something that needs to be fixed or eradicated in order for the afflicted individuals to better conform to a society or environment that was designed for people without those differences or limitations.

      Looking over your comment, it seems like your observations are well-aligned with the social model of disability. You don’t see yourself as having a disability. You get around fairly well. Many of the issues you face in regards to your paralysis are forms of discrimination or inaccessibility that you experience in the environment around you. I feel the same way about my experience living with muscular dystrophy. If informed by the medical model, however, these same issues that you and I see as discrimination others might see as manifestations of a tragedy (my muscular dystrophy and your paralysis). And what will they do to try and remedy these issues? Well, in a perfect world, they would make the buses accessible, they would make their stores or homes accessible, they would design their apps with people like us in mind although it’s just as likely they would donate to a charity or to a research fund to cure our conditions, thus rendering the same issues negligible.

      I totally agree with your point that disability is an incredibly nuanced experience, one that cannot be adequately defined by a strict dichotomy in 500 words or less. Unfortunately, we live in a world where you and I and others like us still experience discrimination, where many people still do not acknowledge people with disabilities as a social minority, one deserving of the same rights that others enjoy. And for these reasons I think both the social model of disability and disability identity are indispensable in our struggle for equality.

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