Disability Essay

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Common sense takes disability as a simple natural fact, but the sociology of disability emphasizes that disability has to be differentiated from impairment. Not every chronic health condition is acknowledged as disability. There are cultures in which the social fact of disability does not exist. Disability as a social problem has evolved as a product of the modern welfare state. With the beginning of modernity and, above all, during the period of industrialization, a line was drawn between ”the disabled and other poor and unemployed people. In the course of the twentieth century disability became a horizontal category of social stratification. Even today the ascription process is ambivalent: it includes rights and benefits as well as discrimination and segregation.

Despite many efforts, an internationally accepted definition of disability does not exist. Nonetheless, on the national level classifications that constitute disability as social fact are in operation. Pedagogical diagnostics defining special educational needs are of great significance for establishing individual positions, not only in the school system but also in later life. Medical experts serve as gatekeepers to the rehabilitation system and have great influence on disability categories, while legislation and courts serve as agencies to control disability as a social problem.

The World Health Organization (WHO) made special efforts to find a universal disability concept on an international level. In 1980 it published the Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps (ICIDH). It was based on a threefold model: ”impairment denoted a defect or disorder in the medical sense, ”disability meant functional limitations, and ”handicap indicated the individual inability to fulfill normal social roles. More than 20 years later, the WHO (2001) revised this classification scheme. The topical Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) uses a multidimensional approach. Its first part, ”functioning and disability, differentiates between ”body functions and structures and ”activities and participation. The second part consists of ”contextual factors and contains ”environmental and ”personal factors. The use of the participation concept as well as the reference to environmental factors are important novelties in contrast to the ICIDH. Additionally, terminology was changed. The term disability now comprises medically defined impairments as well as activity limitations and participation restrictions. The term handicap was completely given up. Despite these innovations disability studies scholars criticize the ICF because the social model of disability was only half-heartedly implemented.

Since the 1960s, Goffman s (1963) stigma theory has been dominant in the sociology of disability. This microsociological approach views disability as constituted in social interaction. If a person has a highly visible bodily feature or behaves in a peculiar way and is therefore negatively valued by interaction partners, he or she becomes stigmatized. The stigma will result in social distance, but at the same time interaction rules demand ”quasi-normalcy to be maintained. For this reason, ”mixed social situations are typically characterized by feelings of ambivalence and insecurity about how to act. Stigma theory makes it possible to analyze disability not as an inner personal characteristic, but as a product of social relations.


  1. Albrecht, G. L., Seelman, K. D., & Bury, M. (eds.) (2001) Handbook of Disability Studies. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  2. Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled      Prentice   Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  3. World Health Organization (2001) International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health: ICF. World Health Organization, Geneva.

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