The concept of the social construction of disability has become popularized as a result of two major factors. On one hand, individuals with medical and physical disabilities have been working for their civil rights to fully participate and have access to society commensurate with their able-bodied, able-minded peers. On the other hand, the disproportionate representation of minorities in special education has created the question of how disability is socially constructed, and the system may, in fact, misinterpret cultural behavior or tendencies as disability rather than difference.
The social construction of disability offers a new lens for understanding ability and disability as a social construction that frames how society understands and interacts with individuals who behave in ways that are different from the norm. It is a tool to assist in recognizing how ability is framed so that people can recognize and work toward more equitable, inclusive practices and perceptions of individuals who are different. This entry discusses the perspective of disability as socially constructed.
Disability can be explained as an objective, medically based phenomenon or as a subjective, socially constructed phenomenon. Both perspectives have an aspect of subjectivity because disability refers to one’s “inability” in relation to those who are abled. Social construction of disability allows one to shift away from viewing ability as normal toward questioning what social and environmental factors make some abled while others are disabled. By definition, individuals with disabilities have a different way of physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially experiencing and making meaning of the world. Their perceptions and priorities may be different from what is deemed “normal.” Does this mean the individual is disabled or differently abled?
The disability rights movement has highlighted the need to examine disability through a new lens in order to change perceptions of individuals with disabilities. Historically, disability has been viewed from a medical perspective, suggesting that disability is an absolute condition that creates boundaries for what people are able to do and achieve. Thus, individuals with disabilities have been viewed from a deficit perspective of their inabilities and experience lowered expectations in relation to their able-bodied, able-minded peers. According to the disability rights movement, the medicalization of disability creates an illusion that an individual’s abilities or disabilities set parameters on what they can and cannot do.
For example, the deaf community asserts that a person’s inability to hear and use oral language is a cultural phenomenon because it shapes how such individuals understand and interact, in contrast with the conventional oral or auditory emphasis in the hearing world. Deaf individuals are more reliant on visuals and use manual language to communicate and interact with their world; their language is more conceptual, with hand shapes serving as the foundation for grammar and morphology. When compared to the societal norms of the hearing world, individuals who are deaf continue to be viewed as “dis-abled” in relation to those who are hearing. However, when hearing persons enter the deaf world, they experience an “in-ability” or “dis-ability” in relation to their “hearing-ness” or reliance on auditory stimulation and oral communication rather than use of manual language.
Historically, able-bodied or able-minded individuals have devalued the thinking or being of individuals with “dis-abilities” by forcing such individuals to perceive the world through the dominant society’s view and uphold the same norms of existence. Who created this reality of separating people because of their ability? In a capitalistic society, a stratified system of participation exists in which individuals are categorized and privileged according to their status and ability. In some societies, however, all members have purpose and no one is viewed as better than another. Rather, each member is valued for what he or she is able to contribute.
In many indigenous cultures, an individual’s “disability” is considered sacred and provides that individual with unique abilities that benefit the community. For example, in one community, an individual who would be considered mentally retarded in the United States was appreciated for his gift in preserving and teaching others the native language of his people. In another indigenous community, a child who was nonverbal with severe motor and cognitive delays and had albinism wore a special costume and marched at the beginning of the procession during ceremonies.
Culture And Disability
In the past twenty years, disproportionate representation has become an increasing concern as students of color continue to be overrepresented in special education, whereas White students are underrepresented. Disproportionate representation refers to an unequal percentage of students being represented in special education in comparison with their representation in general education. As a result of these trends, some educators contend that the current method of identifying students with disabilities and the structure of the education system place students of color at a disadvantage. Many researchers challenge the dominant model of education, arguing that it does not emphasize and often disregards the importance of cultural and linguistic factors that influence how people learn and make meaning of the world. Traditional views about how to educate students reflect the dominant society’s history, culture, and language and create a privileging pattern that may lead to the misidentification of students of color as “disabled.”
A sociocultural approach to disability critically examines the factors that construct a student’s disability in an effort to understand why the student is experiencing failure and how educators can provide choices for academic success. The social environment in which a student exists directly affects how that student learns to learn, process information, and form opinions about his or her life world. From a sociocultural perspective, to understand the individual, it is necessary to understand the social relations of the individual. How people behave and interact is in part a reflection of their socialization. So when children come to school with a different set of experiences and norms of behavior, this is partly a reflection of their socialization and not their in-ability or dis-ability for learning.
Culture and learning go hand in hand because education is a tool for transmitting culture, and culture is the lens through which people view the world and create knowledge; it shapes how they learn. Culture not only influences how students think and learn but how teachers teach and how the educational system is set up to teach and assess what is learned. As a result, if an individual does not learn in ways commensurate with what is deemed the norm, there is potential for being perceived or constructed as disabled.
- Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (1999). Culture in special education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
- Schneider, C. E. (2005). The able-bodied hegemony: The social construction of disability. In The initiative anthology: An electronic publication about leadership, culture, & schooling. Retrieved October 9, 2006, from http://www.muohio.edu/InitiativeAnthology
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