HANDOUT ON DISABILITY ISSUES
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines a “handicapped individual” as “any individual who has a physical or mental disability which for any such individual constitutes or results in a substantial handicap to employment.”
The World Health Organization distinguishes between impairments, disabilities and handicaps. Impairments are physiological abnormalities. Disabilities are limitations in functional performance stemming from impairments. Handicaps are resulting disadvantages that may take the form of arbitrary barriers constructed, consciously or unconsciously, by society.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 states that someone is disabled if he or she: a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities b) has a record of such impairment c) is regarded as having such an impairment.
The Bureau of the US Census’ 1990 and 1991 surveys define disability as a limitation in a functional activity or in a socially defined role or task.
- The context of defining disabilities depends on historical and cultural issues.
- Many definitions in the U.S. have focused on a person’s ability to work and earn a living; these were the definitions related to early rehabilitation laws.
- The ADA’s broad, three-pronged definition of disability focuses on functional ability rather than specific medical diagnosis to extend its legal protections to the full range of persons with disabilities. A person with a disability is defined as someone who experiences a physical or mental condition that limits the ability to perform a major life activity such as walking, breathing, seeing, hearing, thinking or working. The second prong of the ADA definitions goes further in defining people who might be discriminated against on the basis of disability by saying that people who have a record or history of disability are also protected from discrimination under this law. In addition, the third prong protects people who have no disability at all but who are perceived to have a disability. The second and third prongs of the ADA definitions were established in recognitions that disability discrimination is a phenomenon unto itself and that disability discrimination results from misconceptions and prejudice which are partly or wholly unrelated to the reality of disability itself.
Ableism is a pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses people who have mental, emotional and physical disabilities. Like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, ableism operates on individual, institutional and societal/cultural levels. Deeply rooted beliefs about health, productivity, beauty and the value of human life perpetuated by the public and private media, combine to create an environment that is often hostile to those whose physical, emotional, cognitive, or sensory abilities fall outside the scope of what is currently defined as socially acceptable.
There is a broad range of disabilities, encompassing a huge diversity of people, including people whose disabilities are:
- Perceptual (such as visual and hearing impairments and learning disabilities)
- Illness-related (such as multiple sclerosis, AIDS)
- Physical (such as cerebral palsy)
- Developmental (such as Down Syndrome)
- Psychiatric (such as bipolar, chronic depression)
- Mobility (such as quadriplegia, paraplegia)
- Environmental (such as asthma, sensitivities to allergens and chemicals in the environment)
Challenging Assumptions About Disabilities
* Disability is not inherently negative.
* Becoming disabled involves major life changes including loss as well as gain, but it is not the end of a meaningful and productive existence.
* People with disabilities experience discrimination, segregation, and isolation as a result of other people’s prejudice and institutional ableism, not because of the disability itself.
* Social beliefs, cultural norms, and media images about beauty, intelligence, physical ability, communication, and behavior often negatively influence the way disabled people are treated.
* Societal expectations about economic productivity and self-sufficiency devalue persons who are not able to work, regardless of other contributions they may make to family and community life.
* Without positive messages about who they are, persons with disabilities are vulnerable to internalizing society’s negative messages about disability.
* Independence and dependence are relative concepts, subject to personal definition, something every person experiences, and neither is inherently positive or negative.
* Disabled people’s right to inclusion in the mainstream of our society is now protected by law, yet they are still not treated as full and equal citizens.
Stereotypes/Myths Such As: Names/Words Such As:
Eternal children Crippled
Burden Physically Challenged
God’s Children Mentally ill
From: Adams, Maurianne, Lee Anne Bell and Pat Griffin. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge, 1997.