Academic Discussions of Disability

Conceptions of disability and the cultural framing of people with disabilities have evolved over time. This has remained consistent within academic frameworks of disability which have negotiated and have, in fact, furthered the introduction and integration of ideas surrounding disability into modern society. However, in the past, a majority of these images of people who have disabilities – whether produced through the academy or through popular culture – have been constructed in modes that alienate and dehumanize the individual lives of countless people. Beginning with a generalized fear, hatred, prejudice, and pity when considering people with disabilities, modes of framing disability have progressed – although, not necessarily always in beneficial ways. Progress is not necessarily linear and forward moving – although, much of the American mythology which equates the United States with inevitable progress generally trends towards such broad and sweeping assumptions that obscure the ways in which, culturally and politically, we have not progressed. This has certainly been the case within the field of disabilities studies, where, especially in the past, people with disabilities have often been Othered or otherwise portrayed as sub-human in numerous ways.

In the nineteenth century, the medical model of disability was a diagnostic model used to culturally construct people who had disabilities as people who suffered from a treatable, or curable,  disease. This began to shift away from previous conceptions of disability which framed disability as stemming from some sort of personal, moral failing and the people who had disabilities as monstrous or freakish Others. The medical model of disability can still be widely seen in effect today – including in much of academia. These persistent characterizations of people with disabilities continue to be culturally enforced, and, indeed, “[m]ost interpretations of disability rely in some way upon a handful of stereotypes that include the tragic victim, super cripple, or maniacal villain (driven by the misfortune of an unbearable disability)” (13), according to disability scholar Kathrine Ott, and the medical model is no different. “Disability is understood as a private personal, usually shameful affliction and not within a larger context of a community or difference” (Ott 13). The medical model of disability is still very much in practice and performance. Its rhetoric can be seen throughout much of the fields of medicine and biology especially, as has been stated clearly in this article by bioethicist and professor, John Harris, who, writing in 2000, says, “I don’t believe that it is social factors that make blindness and lameness and deafness into a disability. Social factors may exacerbate the problem of having such disabilities but they are disabilities because there are important options and experiences that are foreclosed by lameness, blindness and deafness” (Harris 98). Harris has taken it upon himself to help define, through ableist terms – the rhetoric used to reinforce and support oppressive hegemonic cultural notions concerning disability – what constitutes disability or non-disability.

It is this determination and application of judgement which is indicative of a more insidious problem. The problem still becomes that able-bodied individuals, like Harris, continue to dictate how people’s lives and experiences are to be viewed – again, they are not defined by the individual people with disabilities who live through and experience disability, but rather, they are defined through ableist terms like these. The medical model of disability inadequately and harmfully defines the lives and experiences of people with disabilities as an external phenomenon. Concepts like these do not acknowledge the ways in which disability is both socially constructed – often through discriminatory practices – and the ways in which disability can be positive and empowering. Harris begins to acknowledge the socially oppressive factors, saying, “We surely need to be able to deplore these social, political, economic and cultural disadvantages independently of whether or not they are triggered by disability” (98), but he does not go far enough. Through a critical analysis of Harris’ rhetoric, we can see in this excerpt that such a conception of disability obscures actual problems stemming from social inequality. For instance, when Harris states that these problems are “triggered by disability,” he is semantically placing an implicit blame upon the people with disability themselves for “triggering” their own discrimination. In effect, Harris implies that disability is responsible for “triggering” discrimination – not that discrimination (in some cases) helps to create disability and, effectually disables some individuals. Statements like this one are indicative of a worldview which ignores the hegemonic social forces at play which cause actual harm to individuals’ lives.

The visibility of disability, or the lack thereof, is central to the study of disability and is one of the most fascinating and problematic aspects of culturally-constructed disability. The social erasure of disability and the general desire by many to make disability less visible play crucial points in the history of disability as well as contemporary theories of disability. This erasure obscures any attempts to emphasize the ways in which disability functions as a spectrum that everyone exists upon and functions within. When considering public space and images of disability, researcher Katherine Ott acknowledges and confronts the ways in which disability is excluded from the public’s vision, playing into larger hegemonic ableist forces, saying, “How disability is portrayed (or not portrayed) is directly related to core cultural values” (13). This public lack of recognition through lack of portrayal, reveals deep-seated anxieties within much of modern society that seek to limit the visibility of disability and of people with disabled bodies in an effort to Other people who have more evident (or perhaps less evident) disabilities.

As with many marginalized groups, people who have disabilities often accept or decline varying levels of calcification and essentialization in order to centralize and mobilize for political mobilization and organization. People with disabilities have had to negotiate their perceived status of disability on a social level which has often meant consciously submitting themselves to the gaze of others and effectively reifying their disabilities for the gratification or acceptance of another. This has further fed into ideas of objectification and dehumanization which accompany such ableist precepts and suggest that recognition and validation of “true disability” must come from without, in the form of formal clinical approval. In many cases this policy has been implemented in order to distribute benefits or compensation for disabilities. However, as noted earlier, what has actually occurred is the further entrenchment of ableist concepts which reinforce a clinical medical conception of disability.

Attempts to counter ableist precepts like those which originate from the medical models as well as other conceptions of disability have arisen through what has been termed the social or sociopolitical model of disability. This method of constructing and conceiving of disability argues that, “[r]ather than viewing disability as an individual limitation, a sociopolitical orientation to disability engages disability and the very concept of limitation as a social construction by emphasizing how such discourses serve to oppress those with disabilities” (Eisenhauer 8). This displaces the prior conceptions of disability, which placed an unwarranted and unfair burden upon individuals who have disabilities, and, in effect, placing the blame upon people with disabilities. Rather than acknowledging disability’s sociopolitical components, prior notions had not taken into consideration other external sources which would impact and, indeed, shape the lives of people with disabilities. Instead, such conceptions have not acknowledged that the “perceived limitations of a person with a disability result from ‘the failure of social systems to accommodate the needs and aspirations of all citizens’” (Eisenhauer 8). The sociopolitical model of disability works by shifting the “blame” or contributing factors from the individual to the social level, revealing the social and cultural factors which contribute to the social discrimination and oppression of people with disabilities. The sociopolitical theory works by envisioning and recognizing the ways in which cultural phenomena create and shape the circumstances of the lived experiences of people with disabilities. By relocating the site of the contributing factors, a “sociopolitical orientation to disability frames disability as the result of human-made environments rather than personal limitations. ‘Such environments are informally and formally shaped and defined by programs, policies, curricula, architectural plans, and other assorted practices’” (Eisenhauer 8). Such a step is crucial in effectively acknowledging and addressing the oppressive hegemonic forces of ableism at play in modern society. The broadening effect of the sociopolitical model plays a crucial role in modifying previous notions concerning disability and this shift from exclusively the personal to the political is a necessary step in the progress of de-stigmatizing and actually normalizing disability. However, many disability scholars have recognized that this model, although useful, is not entirely sufficient in addressing, reversing, integrating, and instating a truly positive and beneficial conception of disability.

In response to these prior, not entirely adequate, frameworks of disability, scholars in the field of disability studies have conceived of the affirmative model of disability. This conceptual framework builds upon prior work but ultimately transcends previous models of disability by allowing for the space to truly embrace and acknowledge the powerful, positive and empowering aspects of disability. Disability researchers John Swain and Sally French write that, “The social model has empowered disabled people in taking control of support and services,” and, furthering these advances, “just as the social model signified, for disabled people, ownership of the meaning of disability, so the affirmative model signifies ownership of impairment” (579). Continuing the crucial theoretical as well as practical groundwork which had been laid by the social conception of disability, the affirmative framework, “directly challenges presumptions of personal tragedy and the determination of identity through the value-laden presumptions of non-disabled people. Whereas the social model is generated by disabled people’s experiences within a disabling society, the affirmative model is borne of disabled people’s experiences as valid individuals, as determining their own lifestyles, culture, and identity” (Swain et al 578). Furthering the conceptual shift from external, alienating factors which have been framed to determine disability (as we had seen in the incomplete and not entirely adequate social model), the affirmative model takes the crucial step towards personalizing disability in a positive, non-ableist, and non-denunciational tone. In other words, the affirmative model of disability takes a concerted effort to take personal control of disabled consciousness and identity, while, simultaneously, making a conscious choice to not concentrate blame upon people with disabilities. In fact, as we have already seen, the theory takes the necessary steps to address the systematic victimization, patronization, and “presumptions of personal tragedy,” deliberately constructed around previous ideas surrounding disability. In an effort to challenge such reductive and prescriptive essentialized notions “through an affirmative model, disabled individuals assert a positive identity, not only in being disabled, but also being impaired. In affirming a positive identity of being impaired, disabled people are actively repudiating the dominant value of normality” (Swain et al 578). Such efforts by disability scholars like Swain and French, and people with disabilities to positively re-center the meaning and identity of disability upon the experiences of people with disability themselves, as well as upon the disabled body, have disrupted hegemonic ableist conceptions of disability in a number of ways. The re-ascription of the disabled body with self-defined power and identity has been a crucial step towards normalizing disability.

Works Cited:

Eisenhauer, Jennifer. “Just Looking and Staring Back: Challenging Ableism through Disability Performance Art.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 49, no. 1, 2007, pp. 7–22.,

Harris, John. “Is There a Coherent Social Conception of Disability?” Journal of Medical Ethics,  vol. 26, no. 2, 2000, pp. 95–100.,

Ott, Katherine. “Disability and the Practice of Public History: An Introduction.” The Public Historian, vol. 27, no. 2, 2005, pp. 9–24.,

Swain, John, and Sally French. “Towards an Affirmation Model of Disability.” Disability & Society 15.4 (2000): 569-82. ProQuest. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.