Disability is a Social Construct

Disability is a Social Construct

When you hear the word disability, what images come to mind?  Is it something like Tiny Tim, a young child with a cane, unable to walk on his own?  Is it someone like the late Steven Hawking, who pushed past the boundaries of his impairments in order to give science great discoveries?  Or even still, is it that of a paralympic athlete, who trains day and night, working as hard–if not harder–than their nondisabled athlete counterparts?  These are all perfectly good examples of disability, and yes all three are disabled.  But these three examples of disability are not at all comprehensive.  The scope of disability is vast, to the point where the line between disabled and nondisabled becomes hazy.  In fact, the more you look into what constitutes a disability, and how society treats disabled people, the more you begin to see that disability is nothing more than a social construct.  We began this discussion in our article on the definition of disability, but there are a few points I would love to explore further. 

Definition of Disability 

To recap the article, The Problem with the Definition of Disability, dictionary.com’s definition of disability as it stands is “lack of adequate power, strength, or physical or mental ability; incapacity.”  This puts all the weight of the disability on the disabled person.  It’s not society that’s broken, it’s the disabled person.  Therefore, it isn’t the job of anyone but the person with the disability to make their world accessible to them.  It no longer becomes the shop owner’s responsibility to have an accessible entrance. The wheelchair user should supply their own or go to a different shop. 

This may seem extreme, and you’re right.  In today’s world, this is a bit extreme.  However when your entire life is filled with tiny moments like this, they add up.  There’s a lot more access today, which has made living with a disability easier, but there is still a long way to go. 

Media and Disability 

We are going to totally ignore the fact that there are few disabled roles in movies and TV, and fewer played by actual disabled people.  Instead, we are going to discuss the phrase I’m tired of hearing:  “But they’re not actually disabled, you know?”.  This comment, which I’ve heard both in and out of the context of media, is extremely ableist and is part of the reason the idea of disability being inherently bad is still around.   

Let’s look at an example.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe has MANY disabled characters, including:  Bucky Barnes, Doctor Steven Strange, and even the god of thunder himself, Thor.  For those unfamiliar, Bucky Barnes is an amputee and has a prosthetic arm, Doctor Strange had a bad car accident and lost the use of his hands, and Thor lost an eye and is blind on one side.  People often forget these characters are disabled because they have superpowers that overpower their disability.  With the exception of Doctor Strange, which focused on his partial paralysis most of his solo movie, none of the characters seemed to struggle with their disability.  Just because you don’t see them struggle, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t disabled.   

We need to start not only seeing these characters as disabled, but also celebrating them and how their disabilities have shaped their character.  Just because their story is not about disability doesn’t mean they aren’t disabled.  Ignoring these aspects of their character only serves to further the idea that disability is bad and should be forgotten, and should only be brought up to inspire us. Not every disabled person has a visible disability. For instance, you can’t tell Thor is blind in one eye after he got that special prosthetic from Rocket.   

This mindset carries over into the real world when, for example, a deaf/hard of hearing person can read lips.  You might forget they are deaf, but the second you cover your mouth or turn away from them they don’t know what you’re saying.  They’ve adapted, just like these heroes, but these adaptations only go so far.  Ignoring someone’s disability allows for you to forget they are disabled. And when that happens, it becomes easier for you to ignore what they need accommodated. 

When is a Disability Not a Disability? 

Do you wear glasses or contacts?  Congratulations!  You, my friend, are disabled!  However, don’t go filing for benefits quite yet, because you might not be disabled enough.  While it’s true that people who are blind or visually impaired may be able to receive benefits, just because you lack 20/20 vision doesn’t mean you qualify.  If your vision can be fixed with regular prescription glasses or contacts alone, chances are you won’t.  But why is that?  Why is there a line?  Who draws the line? 

There are certain disabilities, like poor vision, that are so low cost (relatively) and low maintenance to accommodate that society has moved past the need to classify it as disabled.  While some people have worse vision than others, the majority of people with less-than-perfect eyesight can be accommodated easily and for cheap.  In these cases, accommodations like larger text options and glasses are so common that we’ve stopped viewing poor vision as a disability unless it’s really bad

Why Disability is a Social Construct 

Now we come to the meat and potatoes of the article — why you probably clicked here in the first place.  While disability is indeed a tangible, visible thing in most cases (exceptions include disabilities like autism, EDS, and other invisible disabilities), the concept of disability meaning inability is completely man-made.  The world is only inaccessible because we refuse to accommodate people’s disabilities and needs.  It should not be the responsibility of the disabled person to make a space accessible. It should just be accessible.  When the world becomes accessible for everyone with a certain disability, like how glasses are easily obtained to fix poor vision, the term disability shifts meaning. 

Disability is a social construct because the barriers are manufactured.  Before boats were invented, the inability to cross the sea was not seen as a disability, because nobody could do it.  Fast forward to today, if nobody could climb a flight of stairs we would have no choice but to make changes to our buildings.  Disabled people are the largest minority, and we will continue to be until we stop seeing disability as the individual’s problem and not societies.  A disabled person can not change their disability to better access certain parts of life.  Certain parts of life have to change to accommodate the disability.  When we begin to think of disability in this way, we can begin to get rid of the idea that disability is a bad thing. 

Disability is a Social Construct

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