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Disability refers to the social effects of physical or mental impairment. This definition, known as the 'social model' of disability, makes a clear distinction between the impairment itself (such as a medical condition that makes a person unable to walk or unable to sit) and the disabling effects of society in relation to that impairment. As Frank Bowe put it in Handicapping America (1978), the real issue is the societal response to disability: if a community allows physical, architectural, transportation, and other barriers to remain in place, society is creating handicaps that oppress individuals with disabilities. If, on the other hand, a community removes those barriers, persons with disabilities can function at much higher levels. In simple terms, it is not the inability to walk or inability to sit that prevents a person entering a building unaided but the existence of stairs or the lack of benches to lie down, that are inaccessible to a wheelchair-user or a person with sitting disability. In other words, 'disability' is socially constructed. The 'social model' is often contrasted with the 'medical model' which sees 'disability' as synonymous with 'impairment.'

Demographics of disability[]

Many books on disability and disability rights point out that 'disabled' is an identity that one is not necessarily born with, as disabilities are more often acquired than congenital. Some disability rights activists use an acronym TAB, Temporarily Able-Bodied, as a reminder that many people will develop disabilities at some point in their lives, due to accidents, illness (physical, mental or emotional), or late-emerging effects of genetics.

Current issues and debates surrounding 'disability' include social and political rights, societal inclusivity and citizenship. In developed countries the debate has moved beyond a concern about the perceived cost of maintaining dependant disabled people to the struggle to find effective ways of ensuring disabled people can participate in and contribute to society in all spheres of life.

An approach that has led to tangible improvements in the lives of people with disabilities in some regions has been the Independent Living Movement. The term "Independent Living" was taken from 1959 California legislation that enabled people disabled by polio to leave hospital wards and move back into the community with the help of cash benefits for the purchase of personal assistance with the activities of daily living. With its origins in the US civil rights and consumer movements of the late 1960s, the movement and its philosophy have since spread to other continents influencing disabled people's self-perception, their ways of organizing themselves and their countries' social policy.

The disability rights movement, led by end-users rather than families and other caregivers, began in the 1970s. This self-advocacy is largely responsible for the shift toward independent living and accessibility.

The language and terminology of disability[]

The American Psychological Association style guide devotes a large section to the discussion of individuals with disabilities, and states that in professional writing following this style, the person should come first, and nominal forms describing the disability should be used so that the disability is being described, but is not modifying the person. For instance: people with Down syndrome, a man with schizophrenia, and a girl with paraplegia. (This applies only to English and possibly other prepositional languages, not postpositional languages.) Similarly, a person's adaptive equipment should be described functionally as something that assists a person, not as something that limits a person. "A woman who uses a wheelchair" -- she is not "in" it or "confined" to it, and she leaves it at the very least for sleeping and bathing.

Many people with disabilities have contributed to society. These include:

  • Self Advocate Singer-Composer Ian Dury (UK, 1942-2000)
  • USA president Franklin Roosevelt (impaired movement as the result of Guillain-Barré syndrome or polio),
  • classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven (deaf in later years),
  • King Richard III of England (childhood sickness allowed bones to malform, resulting in severe curvature of the back and extremely uneven legs)
  • musician Stevie Wonder (USA, blind)
  • jazz pianist Marcus Roberts (blind)
  • musician Ray Charles (USA, blind)
  • Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen (lost left arm in a car accident),
  • comedian, actor, author, and monologist Greg Walloch (cerebral palsy),
  • civil rights activist Helen Keller (deaf and blind),
  • Chilean civil rights activist persons with disabilities Carlos Kaiser (was born with incomplete upper and lower limbs)
  • Cole Porter, musical theater composer (lost legs after riding accident)
  • Classical actress Sarah Bernhardt (lost leg after a nasty fall)
  • Stephen Hawking (who has motor neurone disease and uses a wheelchair and speech synthesizer) UK,
  • Deng Pufang - has paraplegia
  • Nicaraguan guitar player, singer and songwriter Tony Melendez (born without arms)
  • Major league pitcher Jim Abbott (USA, born without a right hand)
  • Actress Marlee Matlin (deaf)
  • Joseph Merrick ("the Elephant Man", severe neurofibromatosis)
  • Christopher Reeve, USA actor famous for portraying Superman who became a quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident,
  • for others see list of people with disabilities.


  • Frank Bowe, Handicapping America:Barriers to disabled people, Harper & Row, 1978 ISBN 0060104228
  • Encyclopedia of disability, general ed. Gary L. Albrecht, Thousand Oaks, Calif. [u.a.] : SAGE Publ., 2005
  • David Johnstone, An Introduction to Disability Studies, 2001, 2nd edition, ISBN 185346726X
  • Michael Oliver, The Politics of Disablement, St. Martin's Press 1997, ISBN 0333432932
  • Tom Shakespeare, Genetic Politics: from Eugenics to Genome, with Anne Kerr , New Clarion Press, 1999, ISBN 1873797257

External links[]

*[1] | UK Public services for disabled people*Disability and Rehabilitation | Official journal of the International Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine (ISPRM)

See also[]