History of the Evolution of Disability Studies

A Summarized History of how Disability has been viewed through the ages

The way in which disability is viewed has changed radically over the years. Unfortunately, much of the history of disability is linked to discrimination, but over time, people with disabilities started speaking out and reclaiming the right to define disability for themselves.

In the middle ages, disability was seen as a punishment from God for a family’s sins. Disabled people were rejected and feared, as they were seen as manifestations of evil. People were ashamed of disabled family members and often hid them away from the world to avoid their family being stigmatized as evil. 

With the rise of science, religious interpretations of disability became less popular and the medical model of disability became dominant in the 20th century. This model explains disability as a personal tragedy and a defect that is situated within the individual, causing them to adapt poorly to the world around them. The model focuses on rehabilitation, treatment and genetic intervention as necessary to “cure” disability and to bring people back in line with what society considers to be normal and whole.

The Disabled People’s Movement of the 1970’s mobilized people with disabilities to take back the right to make their own decisions and define disability for themselves. This gave rise to the slogan “nothing about us without us”.

Members of the Disabled People’s Movement saw the medical model as problematic, as it normalized the marginalization of disabled people. They argued that it absolved society of the responsibility of inclusion and placed it on disabled people themselves. Instead, they suggested the social model, which sees disability as a state imposed on people by society’s reluctance to take impairment into account. In other words, society does not cater for people with bodies that differ from what is considered the norm, causing inaccessible environments and the marginalization of certain groups. This implies a distinction between impairment and disability, with impairment being the physical lack of, or inability to use a certain body part and disability being the functional difficulties experienced due to an environment that is inaccessible to people with impairments. In a University setting for examples, this include the fact that many buildings do not have elevators or ramps,, textbooks are not always available in accessible formats for visually impaired students, and disability units providing services to disabled students are understaffed.

Within recent years, the social model has been criticized for ignoring the complex nature of people’s experiences of their impairments. The bio-psychosocial model, for example, rejects the medicalization of disability, but also provides a broader view of disability than does the social model. It sees disability as an interplay between biological, psychological and social factors. For example, genetic factors, personality and behavioral factors and cultural or socio-economic factors are all seen as an influence of individuals’ experiences of disability. Therefore, disability is not entirely routed in either impairment or in social barriers. A blind individual may find it problematic that they cannot see a sunset, recognize faces or make eye contact, even in an environment completely adapted to accommodate different bodies.

In the last century alone, we have progressed from a point at which disability was entirely defined by outsiders to an era of activism in which disabled people use new definitions of disability to combat discrimination and reclaim their identities. Many disabled people are proud of their identities as disabled and refuse to be victimized. The hope is that disability will eventually be seen by all as just another example of the diversity in our society in the same way that there are different races, nationalities, languages and gender and sexual orientations.

Sydney Berrington

Author: Sydney Berrington

Sydney Berrington was chair for Dis-Maties 2012 – 2014 and has a great passion for life and academics. She aims to raise awareness for those living with disabilities. She also loves good white wine, pizza and political debates.

Sydney Berrington

Sydney Berrington

Sydney Berrington was chair for Dis-Maties 2012 - 2014 and has a great passion for life and academics. She aims to raise awareness for those living with disabilities. She also loves good white wine, pizza and political debates.

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