Conceptualising Disability

More than merely being a physical manifestation, disability is a socially constructed phenomenon which has implications, more in the socio- economic sphere than anything else. Our society has stricter norms about what is considered ‘normal’ and disability deviates from the societal conception of ‘normal’. This socially constructed normality becomes a barrier in the lives of the disabled as they deviate from the ‘norm’ of what one should be like both physically or mentally. While for the non disabled people, ‘it goes without saying’ that they are human beings.

For the disabled people in many historical contexts ‘it has to be said’. It undertakes special efforts on their part to establish their existence (Hughes, 2007). In all the modern discourses disability is regarded as totally intolerable and is looked at with a strong sense of negativity (Campbell, 2005 cited in Hughes, 2007). Also the assumption that the life of a disabled is shattered and needs the attachments of pity and sympathy further attaches stigma to disability (Smith, 2005 cited in Hughes, 2007). The politics behind defining disability and ‘normality’ is discussed in the ‘social model of disability’ (Oliver, 1990).

How disability has acquired the meanings and connotations that it has acquired over time have much to do with the politics of the dominant group in the society. The dominant group or the power holders define the ‘normality’ so as to look at the people with disability/impairment as abnormal and hence excluding them from the social discourses. Such an organization of the society creates disability (Payne, 1997). Creating an inclusive environment for the persons with disability involves breaking the traditional barriers and hierarchies that exists and which defines what is normal and what is not.

Let us have a look at various perspectives to understand disability. The functionalist understanding of disability points at lack of social security for the disabled by the basic unit of society- family. This was often because when the societies were relatively unstable, the survival of the group was put ahead that of the disabled member. Only later when the societies could produce some surplus food, they started caring for the disabled. Religion explained disability as a result of one’s past deeds, manifested in the form of karma theory.

It further became a reason that the disabled were looked down upon as someone who had bad deeds in their accounts and hence they were suffering. The same religion also spoke of administering charity for the disabled and overtime, the image of a disabled came to be associated with someone who could not help him/herself and was always dependent. The economic context tells us that as capitalism grew after the industrial revolution, the two classes emerged- one that had all the resources and the other which had only their labour power to sell.

The disabled did not fall into the either category and hence were left out from the process. Later on, when the welfare state emerged, it too looked at the disabled not with an empowerment approach but with a lens of charity. When we look at the institution of education, it is only today that we are talking of concepts like ‘integrated schools’, ‘inclusive education policy’ etc. otherwise education for the disabled often remained a neglected issue. However, the situation has changed a lot, thanks to the disability movement and self assertion of the disabled themselves.

The empowerment approach to disability needs to take further roots in the society if the persons with disability are to gain their complete existence in the society. Self perception of the disabled Shame and guilt in the disabled takes a negative toll on their self-esteem and dignity. Murphy (1990) shows the sequencing where the impairment leads to shame and guilt and finally to the ‘crime’ wherein this crime is not a real crime but a situation where the self-esteem of the disabled is shattered and he/she go into isolation.

Elaborating it further, it is a situation where diminution of self takes place in the individual with disability which is further reinforced by debasement of the society. Once the individual is isolated because of his shattered self-esteem, the question that prevails is “Why me and what did I do to deserve this. ” This is a crucial junction where one starts stigmatizing ones’ own self. Their inability to perform certain roles defied the societal notions of ‘normality’, differentiating the participants from the other young people of their age group.

The existing literature over this feature is marked by Murphy (1990) wherein he states that disability leads to the weakening of body which further makes the individual deviate from all the cultural values associated with the young age-speed, alertness, strength, stamina and fortitude. The role of the family Parents of the participants play an important role in their lives in terms of the fact that it is they who push the boundaries of the disabled which may enable them to get stronger and resilient despite the stigma and can make them able to cope up better with the stigma.

The contrary view can also be true with instances where the attitude of parents or family members becomes the first set of barriers in the lives of the disabled. Shakespeare (2006) explains that family and especially the parents have an important role to play in the lives of the disabled individuals. He explains that the parents might be supportive and protective on one hand but on other hand, they also might dominate or undermine the disabled person’s wishes.

Bjarnason states the crucial role of parents in the lives of the persons with disability and states that parents are pivotal in influencing the later path of their disabled children’ lives. The author states, “…early parental decisions and family support systems will affect the claims of disabled persons to adulthood and his or her possibilities to be both heard and understood”. Bjarnason, 2002 To corroborate further, Dan Goodley (2003) observed in his study that the parents had been a strong and vital source of strength for the people with disability in giving them a positive sense of self (cited in Shakespeare, 2006).

In fact, those individuals with disability who receives a good parental support during their childhood are able to join the mainstream and achieve independent life styles as grown up adults with disability. The way forward A practice of a social partnership between the individuals with disability and the non-disabled individuals (Shakespeare, 2006) to break the oppressive structures of the society that exists with regard to disability can be a great step towards empowering the persons with disability. It is the interplay of such structures with the two groups which create situations of stigma around disability.

There are various systems at place here and it would be important to understand their contribution to stigma in disability. The disabled are stigmatized at various levels- the macro-systems (larger social environments in which the disabled live, larger social attitudes, perceptions and existing policies for tackling the issue), meso-systems (structural barriers, prejudices and negative biases that exists in the community) and micro-systems (interaction of the individual with his/her own self- includes self-stigma and self-devaluation, interaction between the individual and social institutions like family and various relationships).

In order to extend the hand of friendship towards the individuals with disability, non-disabled people need to be sensitive, to understand and learn about various issues surrounding disability. This effort has to be taken for both disability as a whole and may be about specific disability which they are engaging with. Often there are various fears and ignorance associated in the non-disabled mind about disability which includes ignorance related to communication with them, fear of saying or doing something wrong (Lenney and Sercombe, 2002, cited in Shakespeare, 2006).

Integrated schooling, which is already proving successful to some extent, needs to promote integration in such a way that it establishes familiarity between the two groups. Apart from integrated schooling, creation of support networks too, can be useful to promote integration. These support networks can be formed through active consultation with persons with disabilities, disabled peoples’ organization, parents’ associations and members of the civil society (PWD Act 1995, Working Draft, 2011).

This will create a supportive environment for the individuals with disabilities where they will have a sense of their space and sense of belongingness to the society. Moreover, it must be made sure that the persons with disability do not merely exist, but can live with pride, dignity and the respect that they deserve. References Bjarnason, D. (2002). New Voices in Iceland. Parents and Adult Children: Juggling Supports and Choices in Time and Space. Disability and Society , 17 (3), 307-326. Hughes, B. (2007). Being Disabled: Towards a Critical Social Ontology for Disability Studies.

Disability and Society , 22 (7), 673-684. Oliver, M. (1990). The Politics of Disablement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Payne, M. (1997). Modern Social Work Theory. Chicago: Lyceum Books, Inc. Murphy, R. F. (1990). The Body Silent-The Diffrernt World of the Disabled. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Shakespeare, T. (2006). Disability Rights and Wrongs. New York: Routeledge. Bjarnason, D. (2002). New Voices in Iceland. Parents and Adult Children: Juggling Supports and Choices in Time and Space. Disability and Society , 17 (3), 307-326.

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