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Project PACE

Reframing Disability


Historically, society has viewed disability in a negative light. In this view, the disability is a “problem” that exists within the person and the goal is to “fix” the person. This approach puts the onus on the disabled person to fit into environments that have not been designed to be inclusive, through the use of accommodations or retrofits. This paradigm is often referred to as the medical or individual model of disability. Many examples of how this perspective pervades our society can be seen by looking at how disability is represented in the media.Sue’s video to be posted here soon.

Another dominant perspective—especially in higher education settings—is the legal view of disability. Unpublished research by the Association on Higher Education and Disability (2008) shows that over 75% of the disability resource professionals surveyed use a legal definition of “disability” to define their work rather than a social one. When disability is viewed through the lens of compliance, the focus is often placed on “what must be done” rather than “what can be done.”Molly’s video to be posted here soon.

Many disability scholars embrace a newer paradigm referred to as the social model of disability. In this paradigm, disability is viewed as “the systemic mismatch between physical and mental attributes of individuals and the present (but not the potential) ability of social institutions to accommodate these attributes” (Schriner & Scotch, 2001). The Social Model of Disability (Oliver, 1996) and the Socio-political Model of Disability (Gill) reframe disability by taking the focus away from the person’s disability, shifting the focus toward the designer of the environment and the removal of barriers in the environment.

Medical Model Social Model
Disability is a deficiency or abnormality Disability is a difference
Being disabled is negative Being disabled, in itself, is neutral
Disability resides in the individual Disability derives from interaction between individual and society
The remedy for disability-related problems is cure or normalization of the individual The remedy for disability-related problems is a change in the interaction between the individual and society
The agent of remedy is the professional who affects the arrangements between the individual and society The agent of remedy can be the individual, an advocate, or anyone who affects the arrangements between the individual and society
Source:Gill, C. (1994) Two Models of Disability . Chicago Institute of Disability. University of Chicago.

While many people embrace this new view of disability, a closer look at our language and practices reveals that the older paradigm is still quite pervasive. Words and phrases like “victim of”, “special services”, and “functional limitations” are clear evidence that the “separate but equal” medical model approach to disability continues to guide many of the policies and practices in higher education settings.

Many disability resource providers working in higher education settings are recognizing the need to begin an intentional process of reviewing current policies and practices. They are taking an inventory of the language in their publications, on their web sites and in their daily use and working to make the shift on these most basic levels. When shifts are made in the way disability is represented, it becomes more clear that designing equitable, inclusive, usable learning environments is a matter of social justice. The principles of universal design provide the framework for designing more usable environments.


Internet Resources

AHEAD Alert Newsletter - Column on Reframing Disability

Reframing Disability: Desegregation in Higher Education: Applications of Universal Design
Chris Lanterman, Northern Arizona University

Enabling Behaviors and Disabling Environments: Implementing AHEAD’s Vision
Melanie Thornton, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Reframing Disability: Using Technology to Enhance Instruction
Gladys Loewen, Assistive Technology, BC

Reframing Disability - Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Reframing Disability: A Question of Human Rights (AHEAD Members only)
Maria Barile, Catherine S. Fichten, and Jennison V. Asuncion
Adaptech Research Network, Dawson College, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Article from NEADS (National Educational Association of Disabled Students) Newsletter

Why Should I Care About Reframing Disability?
Gladys Loewen, Assistive Technology, BC

Other Internet Resources

Disability History Museum

Disability Social History Project

Disability Studies Quarterly

New Paradigm of Disability: A Bibliography

The Nth Degree

Society for Disability Studies

The Ragged Edge

Books - Available in Project PACE Resource Library

Anaya, Rudolfo. (1979). Tortuga. U. of New Mexico Press.

Bowe, F. (1986). Changing the rules. T. J. Publishers.

Callahan, J. (1989). Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot. New York.

Callahan. J. (1998). Will the real John Callahan please stand up? A quasi memoir. Wm. Morrow & Co.

Charlton, J.I. (1998). Nothing about Us without us: Disability oppression and empowerment. University of California Press.

Hans & Patri (eds.). (2003). Women, disability, and identity. Sage Publications.

Johnson, Mary. (2003). Make them go away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and the case against Disability rights. Avocado Press.

Lane, H. Mask of benevolence: Disabling the Deaf community.

Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. NY: New York University Press.

Longmore, Paul. (2003). Why I burned my book and other essays on Disability. Temple University Press.

Mairs, N. (1997). Waist-high in the world: A life among the nondisabled.

Oliver, M. (1989). The politics of disablement. St. Martins Press.

Oliver, Michael. (1996). Understanding Disability. Palgrave.

Shapiro, J.P. (1993). No more pity: People with disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. New York: Times Books.

Videos and DVDs - Available in PACE Resource Library

Clown. 2005. Coastal Training Technologies Corporation.

Garey, D. and Hott, L. (Producers). 2007. Through Deaf Eyes. WETA Washington, DC and Florentine Films/Hott Productions in association with Gallaudet University. (Available from PBS Home Video.)

Updated 6.9.2009