Disability vs Impairment

Recently on my uni course we have been talking a lot about disability and impairment and how they have become social problems, rather than just things that people have in their lives.  One of the main discussions that is brought up is that of defining disability and how this can be different to impairment.

Jenny Morris is a really interesting theorist and she brings up what I find to be the most interesting stance on this issue in her attempt to define the two terms. Morris brings to light an element that is present in disabled people’s lives that is more than just their impairment. Morris’ understanding of disability is someone who has to face everyday challenges and social exclusionary barriers as a result of their mental or physical impairment. Highlighting the element that differentiates disability and impairment, being the notion that disabled people are met with barriers every day that hold them back from participating in society or their community to the best of their abilities. This can have wider and further reaching effects or meanings that aren’t necessarily intentional but can be made to feel that way by the person who has the disability.

An example of this might be condom machines that are often built into public bathrooms. These machines are usually installed quite high and therefore out of reach for wheelchair users. This can obviously be a frustrating and embarrassing experience for wheelchair users, but more than that the experience might be traumatic and disempowering. This could very easily lead to the idea that people in wheelchairs are made to feel that wider society doesn’t want to believe or perhaps doesn’t think that people in wheelchairs have sex, that they aren’t the same as the rest of society. Whilst this connection between the frustrating surface level experience and the more deeply felt and hurtful meaning behind the experience might seem somewhat tenuous, for the person being met with these barriers every day, it is a link that is more easily made than one might think.

I think that it’s realy important to try to understand these definitions and what they mean for the lifestyle of those with disabilities. More than this however, Morris brings to light the idea of how we can be allies to the disable community, and I think for the majority of us this is perhaps the takeaway message. To use the example of the ITV Telethon which stopped being broadcast in 1992, it can often be just as distressing and discouraging for disabled people to be spoken on behalf of, and more than this to be described in such a way that makes them seen ‘vulnerable’ or ‘pitiful’. The ITV Telethon was a show where celebrities would have a chance to perform their ‘charitable act of the year’ by coming along and trying to raise money on behalf of disabled people, this was hit by a substantial backlash from the disabled community as they felt as though they were seen to be pitiful and that they were being spoken for. Perhaps a more emphatic way to campaign for disabled people’s rights would be to celebrate the disabled community, inviting them into society by making the public sphere more accessible both on a fundamentally physical level but also in a more welcoming and celebratory sense.

Food for thought anyway, I hope everyone has had a good month and if not then I hope the next will be better xx – Karl Adelman, Boger