The Social Construction of Disability

One of my graduate students in my advanced foundations course emailed me a little while ago. We had just read a dense article published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities by Reid and Valle entitled “The discursive practice of learning disability: Implications for instruction and parent-school relation.” She wrote:

Dear Clarence, 

I'm just curious if you know anything about how we define having a disability. So let's say a child with Down Syndrome may never reach the same full capabilities that a child without Down Syndrome will. Now we can say that that depends on our definition of capabilities but if we're doing something extra to take care of certain people with disabilities then I would think that their disability does something that hinders them from being as fully participatory in society as they would want. I think that that's different than a child with ADHD who learns differently but still has the full capabilities of being a functioning member in society. Is that still a social construct?



This got me to thinking more deeply about an issue that isn’t in my field of expertise, namely, the idea of the social construction of disability. I answered her question as best as I could:


Dear Emily

That's a really great question. I'm no expert, but my sense is that there isn't a single agreed upon definition of disability. There are a number of models of disability, however, that shape how the term is defined. A really old model is a moral model, where the condition is portrayed as the result of moral deficiency ("who sinned, this man or his parents?" Jesus was asked). The currently predominant model is the medical model: a disability is a defect that (perhaps) can be cured, fixed or managed by medical (or some other medical-like) intervention; the problem resides inside the individual and the individual is excused from normal participation in society because of the condition, much like an ill person can't be expected to participate in normal daily activities. The medical model dominates current perceptions of disability, also in education. However, there is a third model that is emerging, mostly from within the 'disability studies' area as well as from advocacy-educational organizations. This model, sometimes called the disabilities model, regards the 'person with disabilities' as normal, rather than as being intrinsically defective or deviant in some way. In this model, disability is defined socially, as inadequate support (or as particular barriers) for people with certain variations for living well; these barriers might include social attitudes, architectural styles, economic practices, etc. Social discrimination (social environments that exclude) is central to this definition of disability. So there isn't an agreed upon definition. These three are in tension with each other.

Reid and Valle don't discount that sometimes a personal difference makes a huge social difference in many settings and that those differences are very real. I don't think they would deny that what we call ADHD or Dyslexia or Down Syndrome are real differences which, in certain settings, make a crucial difference. Severe autism comes to mind as well. But Reid and Valle are after shifting our understanding of disability away from the medical model, towards the disability model, with its emphasis on the social environment. Their point is that a person's ability to participate in society fully is a different question than whether they have a significant difference or not. We could ask: do (should) babies and young children (be able to) participate in societies? Do (should) old people, who can no longer walk but need wheelchairs to get around, (be able to) participate? Reid and Valle might say that if we create rules and structures for participation in society that restrict it to a fairly high level of independence, then babies and seniors will not be able to participate fully in society. And in excluding them, we might want to consider them temporarily disabled. On the other hand, for a long time already our local grocery store D&W has hired people with Down Syndrome to be check-out baggers and grocery carriers. This gives them space to fully participate in society, and from what I could tell, they feel they are participating fully. This doesn't take away from the fact that they have a difference identifiable as Down Syndrome. And that they might have lesser abilities in some areas. Dyslexia is similar, as is ADHD. Clearly there are differences that make a difference. But are they abnormal, and thus defective and deficient? That is Reid and Valle's question. Asking this slightly differently: do these differences disqualify them from full participation in society? Making social space for someone is different from labeling them as having limited capability.

To answer your question again: I agree with Reid and Valle that what we call disabilities are social constructs. But saying that doesn't deny that there are genuine differences that remain if we changed the social construct. Differences remain. And after a possible change of discourse, we still need to figure out ways to address those differences. Naming them 'social constructs' really only signals that medical model is too simple and makes the disability seem 'natural' rather than a function of the interaction between social structures and individual variation.




Looking back on this exchange with my student, I realize how I’ve been influenced by Christian academics such as Chris Smit and Phil Stegink who have long argued that we shouldn’t simply think that differences like these are the result of sin and the fall, now recognizable as abnormal deficits. Rather, they have taught me, the image of God in each person makes each unique, irreplaceable and with intrinsic value. And, they have taught me, that our world’s fallenness might show up most clearly in these situations through the way that social structures—including ways of thinking and social practices—might reflect the fallenness of our world.

Clarence Joldersma is Professor of Education in the Education Department at Calvin University, where he teaches foundational courses in the undergraduate teacher education program and in the master’s program. He is co-director of Calvin’s Master of Education program. His research interests include the relationship of philosophy of education to environmental ethics, social justice, neuroscience, and affect theory. Recent books include A Levinasian Ethics for Education’s Commonplaces (Palgrave 2014) and Neuroscience and Education: A philosophical appraisal (Routledge, 2016).