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The term "disability", as it is applied to humans, refers to any condition that impedes the completion of daily tasks using traditional methods. National governments and global humanitarian agencies have narrowed this definition for their own purposes, only pledging aid to those with specific disabilities of a certain severity.


Demographics of disability

Many books on disability and disability rights point out that the disabled community is one of very few groups of people that one doesn't have to be born into, as disability can develop later in life as well. Some disability rights activists use an acronym, TAB, humorously to point this out: TAB stands for "temporarily able-bodied" as a reminder that many become disabled as they join the ranks of the elderly.

In most areas of the world, but especially in developed countries, the number of people with disabilities is growing and becoming a more significant percentage of the population because medicine is allowing more people to live who might have otherwise died in less advanced times.

Types of disability

"Disability" can be broken down into a number of broad sub-categories, which can include the following:

Some disabilities are not obvious to outside observers; these are termed invisible disabilities.

A person may be impaired either by a correctable condition such as myopia, or by an unchangeable one such as cerebral palsy. For those with mild conditions, related impairments can improve or disappear with the application of corrective devices. More serious impairments call for adaptive equipment.

A list of disabilities can never be complete or finalized because individuals, organizations, and governments define disabilities differently.

The evolution of a movement

Historically, disabilities have often been cast in a negative light. An individual thus affected was seen as being a “patient” subject either to cure or to ongoing medical care. His condition is seen as disabling; the social reactions to it are justified, and the barriers unavoidable. This position is known as the medical model of disability.

Over the past 20 years, a competing view known as the social model of disability has come to the fore. In this model, disability is seen more as a social construction than a medical reality. Disabled activists, such as Tom Shakespeare (2002), argue that although their impairments may cause them pain or discomfort, what really dis-ables people as members of society is a socio-cultural system which does not recognise their right to genuine equality.

Both the medical and social models agree, to a point, that facilities and opportunities should be made as accessible as possible to individuals who require adaptations. Dismantling physical barriers, or setting up adaptations such as wheelchair ramps, is known as "fostering accessibility".

A human rights based approach has been adopted by many organizations of and for people with disabilities. In 2000, for example, the United Nations Assembly decided to start working on a comprehensive convention for the rights of people with disabilities. Since 2002 the "UN Ad-Hoc meeting" gathers every six months to discuss the content of this UN convention. These meetings are open for Non-Government-Organisations and Disabled Peoples' Organisations.

An approach that has led to tangible improvements in the lives of people with disabilities in many countries 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 began in the 1970s and is largely responsible for the shift toward independent living and accessibility.

The language and terminology of disability

Many people use the term disability to replace the designation handicapped. While these two designations are often used interchangeably, proponents of the social model of disability use the latter term to describe the social and economic consequences of the former; i.e., an individual with a physical or intellectual disability is said to be "handicapped" by the bias of society towards ability (e.g., a building without an elevator handicaps a person who uses a wheelchair). Similarly, in the United Kingdom, people within the disability rights movement commonly use the term "disabled" to denote someone who is "disabled by society's inability to accommodate all of its inhabitants."

The Person First Movement has added another layer to this discourse by asking that people with disabilities be identified first as individuals. "Person First Language" -- referring, for example, to a “woman who is blind,” rather than to "a blind woman" - is a form of political correctness designed to further the aims of the social model by removing attitudinal barriers.

Some people with disabilities support the Person First Movement, while others do not. People who are Deaf in particular may see themselves as members of a specific community, properly called the Deaf culture, and so will reject efforts designed to distance them from the central fact of their identity. This is a view that is becoming increasingly prevalent within other disabled communities, that are becoming self-aware and self defining by seeing their impairments as a central part of their upbringing, education, personality & Lifestyle.

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 autism," "man with schizophrenia," "girl with paraplegia." 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. "A communication aid user." "A girl who uses a ventilator." "A man who takes antipsychotic medications to optimize his daily functioning."

Many people with disabilities especially dislike "disabled person" or "the disabled," as this implies that one's overall "personness" is defective, while "person with a disability" acknowledges the disability without implying anything about the overall person. However, according to the "social model", as it is society that disables a person, the reality of being a "person with a disability" is not really possible because it is impossible for an individual to "have" a society, therefore the term "disabled person" does not signify the lack of one's own "person-ness" but points an accusing finger at society for excluding those with impairments.

See also List of disability-related terms with negative connotations

Well-known people with disabilities

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

See also

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:


  • Tom Shakespeare, Genetic Politics: from Eugenics to Genome, with Anne Kerr (New Clarion Press, 2002).

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