Disability studies refers to the interdisciplinary investigation of how social, political, and economic factors interact to construct the phenomenon of disability. It has emerged within the last two decades as a new academic discipline that critically analyzes the construct of disability. Scholars who align themselves with this discipline regard disability as a basic human condition that should be studied and investigated as part of the diverse fabric of human experience. They highlight the importance of infusing a critical understanding of disability throughout the entire academic curriculum. How people with disabilities have been perceived and treated in different societies throughout history; the representation of disability in film, literature, and the arts; and the relationship between built environments and social participation are but a few examples of the interdisciplinary nature of this field. This entry looks at traditional views of disability and how this new field offers an alternative perspective.
The Traditional View
If you asked ordinary people to define disability studies, chances are most would say that it is about the study of disability: what causes “it,” how “it” can be cured, and how people who have “it” (or are “afflicted with it”) can be helped. Common to such answers is an unquestioned conception of disability as a cognitive, sensory, or physical deficit that inevitably leads to a diminished quality of life for afflicted individuals and their families. A logical conclusion of such a conception would be that disability studies is about curing, managing, and/or rehabilitating disabling conditions.
Applied fields such as medicine, rehabilitation, and special education have historically studied disability as a biomedical condition. Disability was narrowly perceived as a physical, sensory, or cognitive impairment that resides in certain individuals and needs to be treated or otherwise managed. Individuals whose minds or bodies differed from the norm were perceived as victims of their condition and in need of professional care. Their marginalization and social exclusion was seen as inevitably linked to their respective impairments. Disabled activists, academics, and their supporters have challenged such conceptions of disability. They have argued that disability is not simply a deficit inherent in individuals, but rather a condition aggravated by preventable, socially created barriers.
A New Model
Disability studies is closely linked to the social model of disability, which highlights oppression and discrimination as primary barriers in the lives of people with disabilities. Disability rights activists have challenged prevailing perspectives of disability as a tragedy that inevitably constricts the lives of individuals. Rather than focusing on the impairment itself, they have highlighted the issues of poverty, poor education, lack of affordable and accessible housing, and low employment rates that often characterize the lives of people with disabilities.
Such conditions cannot be directly linked to physical, cognitive, or psychological impairments. Rather, they result from unaccommodating societal structures that systematically exclude people with disabilities and prevent them from active participation in society. Ramps in public buildings and laws that prohibit explicit discrimination have been highly instrumental in increasing access and enhancing social participation for people with disabilities. Nonetheless, negative attitudes and more subtle forms of marginalization are more resistant to change.
A paradigm shift that increasingly emphasizes the social, cultural, and economic determinants of disability has important implications for research. Disability studies scholars and activists have pointed a collective and blaming finger toward most of the past research on disability. They have claimed that, by and large, it has reinforced the dominant idea that disability is an individual problem and has thus contributed to the problems faced by people with disabilities. They have brought to the forefront a host of critical but previously unexamined questions pertaining to research on disability, such as who determines the research questions worthy of inquiry and controls the process and product of the research; how research agendas are determined and funded; and, most importantly, what are the often hidden biases and assumptions that undergird much of this research.
This claim is well exemplified by critical perspectives on psychological research on disability. Recent critiques within psychology have highlighted the discipline’s historical focus on pathology and mental illness and neglect of strengths and well-being. This is highly applicable to the study of psychosocial aspects of disability that has largely focused on negative emotional reactions of affected individuals and has all but neglected the study of how people can live well with a disability. The insider experience of disability is quite different from what is assumed by the outsider looking in.
Insiders are familiar with their disability, have learned how to cope with it, and, thus, often report a much higher level of well-being than what an outsider would assume. Traditional psychosocial research has also been criticized for the often unquestioned assumption that the impairment itself presents a major obstacle or source of distress. This rarely resonates with individuals with disabilities, who often identify social barriers and negative societal attitudes as the biggest impediments to well-being.
People with disabilities increasingly demand more than token participation in research projects. They are interested in research projects that go beyond the personal experience of disability to explore the impact of ableist policies and practices. They want to see research projects that expose, examine, and attempt to transform disempowering and ableist policies and practices in schools, hospitals, and other organizations.
Finally, critical disability theorists and activists are interested in exploring and challenging dysfunctional societal practices that perpetuate ableism, oppression, and discrimination. The multidisciplinary field of disability studies has been highly instrumental in advancing these goals, and its messages have been heard both within and outside the disability community.
- Dunn, D. (2000). Social psychological issues in disability. In R. G. Frank & T. R. Elliot (Eds.), Handbook of rehabilitation psychology (pp. 187–224). London: Sage.
- Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.
- Olkin, R., & Pledger, C. (2003). Can disability studies and psychology join hands? American Psychologist, 58(4), 296–304.
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