Defining Disability

Overhead shot of six disabled people of color at a rooftop deck party. An Indigenous Two-Spirit person with a prosthetic leg smiles directly at the camera and gives a thumbs up while everyone else is engaged in conversation.
Photo credit: Chona Kasinger for Disabled and Here

What is disability? And who “counts” as disabled?

Defining disability is more complex than it might seem! When asked to imagine a person with a disability, many people are likely to picture someone with a visibly apparent physical or mobility impairment–consider that the most widely recognizable symbol of disability depicts a wheelchair user. However, physically disabled individuals are only one facet of the highly diverse and dynamic social identity group united through the lived experience of disability. Numerous definitions of disability–medical, legal, political, educational–demonstrate the complexity and nuance of describing an experience that is malleable, contextual, and relational. In order to broadly explore the topic of disability as it relates to the UMass community, this toolkit series will intentionally embrace an expansive definition of disability that includes visible and invisible disability, as well as conditions that are self-identified, medically diagnosed, and/or externally perceived as a disability by others. 

“When we speak of disability we are celebrating the brilliance and vitality of a vast community of peoples with non-normative bodies and minds, whether a disability is visible or not. This includes, though [is] not limited to, folks who identify as disabled, chronically ill, Deaf, mad, neurodivergent, and more.”

Showing Up For Racial Justice Disability Justice Caucus

Historically, disability was commonly understood within the context of religious and medical models. The oldest of these, the moral model, associated disability with sin or wrongdoing, and posited that disability was the result of moral weakness. Along with the advent of modern Western medicine, disability was still understood primarily as a deficit or defect, but one that could now be “fixed” through intervention by expert medical professionals in a medical rehabilitation model. Both of these models contextualized disability as an individual problem that placed disabled people on the margins of society, emphasized their differences, and assumed that all disabled people should want to be as close to “normal” (i.e. non-disabled) as possible. The burden of inclusion fell solely on disabled people, instead of on a dominant culture that failed to account for their differences and attune to their needs.

Largely as a result of advocacy from the disability rights movement, the prevailing contemporary model has shifted to a social model of disability which posits that the deficits lie not with the individual, but with a society that does not value their inherent worth, account for their unique needs, or seek paths to full inclusion for all. As described by disability activist Deborah Kaplan, this model “recognizes social discrimination as the most significant problem experienced by persons with disabilities, and as the cause of many of the problems that are regarded as intrinsic to the disability under the other models.” In other words, disability itself is not the issue – environmental accessibility, cultural stigmas, and social constructs about disabled people’s experiences, abilities, and intrinsic value are. While people with disabilities may still choose to pursue various medical treatments and interventions, the social model of disability intentionally centers the agency of individuals making decisions about their own lives and bodies.

Contemporary disability justice advocates further encourage us to see disability as a dynamic spectrum, as opposed to a static, binary identity. The idea of being “temporarily abled” acknowledges that most people will experience conditions of disability at some point in their lives due to illness, injury, age, and other variable factors. There is also a deepening recognition of the ways in which invisible disabilities, especially those related to neurodivergence and mental health, deserve intentional consideration in conversations about equity and inclusion.