Social:Social construction of disability

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The social construction of disability comes from a paradigm of ideas that suggest that society's beliefs about a particular community, group or population are grounded in the power structures inherent in a society at any given time. These are often steeped in historical representations of the issue and social expectations surrounding concepts such as disability, thereby enabling a social construct around what society deems disabled and healthy.

Ideas surrounding disability stem from societal attitudes, often connected to who is deserving or undeserving, and deemed productive to society at any given time. For example, in the medieval period, a person's moral behavior established disability. Disability was a divine punishment or side effect of a moral failing; being physically or biologically different was not enough to be considered disabled. Only during the European Enlightenment did society change its definition of disability to be more related to biology. However, what most Western Europeans considered to be healthy determined the new biological definition of health.[1]


Around 1970, various groups in North America, including sociologists, disabled people, and disability-focused political groups, began to pull away from the accepted medical lens of viewing disability. Instead, they began to discuss things like oppression, civil rights, and accessibility. This change in discourse resulted in conceptualizations of disability that was rooted in social constructions.[1]


Canada and the United States have operated under the premise that social assistance benefits should not exceed the amount of money earned through labour in order to give citizens an incentive to search for and maintain employment. This has led to widespread poverty amongst disabled citizens. In the 1950s, disability pensions were established and included various forms of direct economic assistance; however, compensation was incredibly low. Since the 1970s, both governments have viewed unemployed, disabled citizens as excess labour due to continuous high unemployment rates and have made minimal attempts to increase employment, keeping disabled people at poverty-level incomes due to the ‘incentive’ principle. Poverty is the most debilitating circumstance disabled people face, resulting in the inability to afford proper medical, technological and other assistance necessary to participate in society.[2]

Law and public policy

Laws have helped to recognize disability as a social construct rather than simply physical impairment. In 1776, the Continental Congress passed the first national law regarding wounded soldiers. Rather than stating attitudes towards disability, the act proposed that the manner in which the US viewed disability was closely linked to its views about the worth of the soldiers. This segment of the Act contains a few references to disability:

"Whereas, in the course of the present war, some commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the army and navy, as also private soldiers, marines, and seamen, may lose a limb, or be otherwise so disabled as to prevent their serving in the army or navy, or getting their livelihood, and may stand in need of relief[.]"[3]

Although this legislation related disability to "getting a livelihood," it also implies through the recognition of an additional connection to serving in the military that disability is not just a failure to function properly but rather built systemically through the ability to function in certain settings. Also, this resolution states that disability is not only based upon physical capabilities and societal roles but social aspects as well.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is an example of how laws have changed the societal roles of disabled people. The Act was signed by President Bush in July 1990. It prohibits discrimination against disabled people by employers and requires that mass transportation, commercial buildings and public accommodations be accessible to disabled people. After the law was passed, Congress realized that many people with disabilities were excluded from society and could not live independently. Before the ADA was made into law, not all disabled people could secure employment, enter a restaurant or store, or access public transportation. A 1986 poll found that 66 percent of disabled citizens were jobless, in spite of the fact that many said they desired and were capable of employment. The same poll showed that 40 percent of handicapped people could not find a job due to the inaccessibility of transportation and public places.[citation needed] As a result of implementation of the ADA, 6 million private businesses and 80,000 state and local governments made their facilities available to the disabled. In July 1992, the provisions of the Act incorporating 43 million disabled individuals in to the workforce were set into motion. Many business owners realized that the changes made to their establishment were of little financial consequence, typically under $500. The conditions of disabled people before and after this law was passed are examples of how society constructs disability through discrimination and physical barriers. By eliminating these obstacles, the disabled are more integrated into society.[4]

Assessment of disability

In the United States, according to the Social Security Administration, to be considered "disabled," a claimant must provide medical evidence displaying proof of and severity of the impairment(s). Medical evidence comes from sources that have treated or evaluated the claimant for his/her impairment(s). Acceptable medical sources include medical professionals including licensed physicians, licensed or certified psychologists, licensed optometrists (only for purposes of establishing visual disorders), licensed podiatrists (only for purposes of establishing impairments of the foot and/or ankle), and qualified speech-language pathologists (only for purposes of establishing speech or language impairments). Qualified speech-language pathologists must be licensed by the State education in the State in which he/she practices, or hold a Certificate of clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.[5]

Applying for disability related benefits (and the assessment of said disability) can take place in person at the Social Security field office, by telephone, by mail, or by filing online. The application process involves supplying a description of the impairment, treatment sources, and other information. A field office then verifies non-medical eligibility requirements (including age, employment, marital status, or Social Security coverage information) and sends the case to the state agency (Disability Determination Services, or DDS) for evaluation (DDS are state agencies that develop medical evidence and deciding whether or not a claimant - the person requesting disability benefits - is disabled or blind under the law).[6]



Since the invention of the television in the early 1900s, this medium has held a pervasive influence on public outlook on many aspects of society, disability being one of them. One example is how the 2000 Paralympics were televised, in contrast to the Olympics. The 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, one of the biggest in history, was barely acknowledged by mainstream media prior to the event.[citation needed] The Sydney Paralympic organizers worked extensively to try to solicit coverage of the Games. For more than two years, they negotiated with Channel 7 to broadcast the competitions. Channel 7 proposed that if the Paralympics paid them $3 million in case of lack of advertising revenue they would agree to broadcast the event. Eventually, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Channel 7 announced they would be broadcasting the Games and Channel 7 would "complement" the coverage with a highlights package that ran daily on its pay-TV Channel. ABC also promised to broadcast at least 60 minutes of daily highlights. Later, ABC finally agreed to air a live broadcast of the opening and closing ceremonies. The opening and closing ceremonies were quite popular amongst viewers, watched by 2.5 million; however the rest of the games were not popular.[citation needed] While the Olympics were covered live throughout the entire event, the Paralympics were not seen as important enough for the same live coverage before the initial showing. By separating the Olympics and Paralympics, and thus indicating that one is less valuable than the other, disability is socially constructed.[7]


Over the last several decades, technology has transformed networks, services, and communication by promoting the rise of telecommunications, computer use, etc. This Digital Revolution has changed how people work, learn, and interact: moving these basic human activities to technological platforms. However, many people who use such technology experience a form of disability. Even if it is not physically visible, those with, for example cognitive impairments, hand tremors or vision impairments, have some form of disability that prohibit them from fully accessing technology in the way that those without a "technological disability" do.

In "Disability and New Media," Katie Ellis and Mike Kent state that "technology is often presented as a source of liberation; however, developments associated with Web 2.0 show that this is not always the case."[8] They go on to state that the technological advancement of Web 2.0 is tethered to social ideology and stigma which "routinely disables people with disability."[8]

In "Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media," Gregg Goggin and Christopher Newell call for an innovative understanding of new media and disability issues.[9] They trace developments ranging from telecommunications to assistive technologies, to offer a technoscience of disability which offers a global perspective on how people with disabilities are represented as users, consumers, viewers, or listeners of new media, by policymakers, corporations, programmers, and the disabled themselves.


It has been suggested that disability education tries to restore the idea of a moral community, one in which the members question what constitutes a good life, reimagine education, see physical and mental conditions as part of a range of abilities, consider that different talents are distributed in different ways, and understand that all talents should be recognized. In this system, all students would be included in the educational network instead of being set apart as special cases, and it would be acknowledged that all humans have special needs and no one is normal.[10]

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 Davis, Lennard (2006). The Disability Studies Reader. Routledge 2nd edition. pp. 197. ISBN 0415953340. 
  2. .Wendell, Wendell (1996). The Social Construction of Disability. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 60. 
  3. Liachowitz, Claire (1988). Disability as a Social Construct. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 0-8122-8134-9. 
  4. Stalcup, pp. 17, 23, 25
  5. "Disability Evaluation Under Social Security Part II - Evidentiary Requirements.". The United States Social Security Administration. Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  6. "Disability Evaluation Under Social Security Part I - General Information.". The United States Social Security Administration. Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  7. Goggin, p.91
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ellis, Katie; Kent, Mike (17 December 2010). Disability and new media. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-83191-5. 
  9. Goggin, Gerard; Newell, Christopher (2003). Digital disability : the social construction of disability in new media. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-1844-2. 
  10. Capper, Colleen (July 1993). Educational Administration in a Pluralistic Society. State University of New York Pr. pp. 173–174, 176–177. ISBN 978-0791413739. 


  • Goggin, Gerard. (2003). Digital Disability. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN:0-7425-1843-4.
  • Stalcup, Brenda. (1997). The Disabled. Current controversies series. Greenhaven Press. ISBN:1-56510-530-3.
  • Ellis, Katie. Kent, Mike. (2011). "Disability and New Media". Routledge. ISBN:0-203-83191-8.