A Guide To Disability Studies

An academic discipline that studies what is a disability, its nature and its effect in the context of social, ethical, political and cultural factors. It also takes into account the perspective and prejudice by normal people towards the people with disability. We have provided the definitions and history of disability studies along with some important parts like disabilities and models of this discipline.

The literature in this discipline examines the way disabilities and normal abilities are seen and explained in the history and culture at different points in time.

Definition and description of the disability

According to the basic definition of disability, it is a physical and mental impairment. An impairment can be related to any of the cognitive ability, intellectual capacity, mental development, physical or sensory problem or a combination of these. These disabilities can be present from the birth or may come up at any time during the lifetime of a person due to any disease or accident.

These disabilities result in a difficulty in doing daily activities necessary to live a normal life. If it is the birth defect, it can be active right from the time a person is born or may increase gradually as he or she grows older. The other reasons for disability can be a disease in which a body part becomes dysfunctional or an accident due to which a body part becomes useless or disabled.

In different communities, disability is taken in different meanings and sometimes works as a synecdoche. It is considered as an attribute that can be fixed with medications according to the medical institutions, and so it is called a “Medical model”. On the other hand, when society or the able part of the community implies or forcefully imposes the limitations on the people with disabilities is considered the “Social model”.

The definition of disability gained an attention and started being discussed after the rise of disability activism in the 1970s in the United Kingdom and the United States. The discussion placed the arguments against the way disability concept takes control on how disabilities are seen and described in literature.

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Understanding disability studies

The development of this field of study has not resulted in a short time but was due to the combined efforts of the social activism, literature and political powers. Next sections cover the discussion and definition of this discipline.


Disability has been studied from a medical perspective by the universities. There have been dedicated works in the field of disability and impairment along with its medical solutions and the role of society. The “Society of Disability Studies” was originally a section of “Social Science Association” that was responsible for studying disability, chronic diseases, and impairment and was renamed in 1986. This society, after the establishment, published its first journal named “Disability Studies Quarterly”.

Various efforts were made since 1994 in studying and understanding the disabilities, but there were only a few courses on it, so the limitations were clearly noticeable. According to Lennard J. Devis, having someone teaching the subject Disability till that period time was nearly impossible. The situation was still not changed considerably which can be understood from his statement 10 years later. In his statement, he said that a lot of things have been changed because of the recognition of the studies of disabilities, but they can’t be pointed out easily.

The development still continued in the years of 2000s. Many publications of journals and articles as well as an act “Americans with Disabilities Act” played a significant role in bringing the people with disabilities in the mainstream including the education and workforce.


Society of Disability Studies defines this field of study as an approach that considers different disciplines and works at an intersection of many of them overlapping each other. The parts of this study include:

  1. Challenging the concept and assumption that an impairment or a defect of an individual can be treated, solved or improved with the help of medical treatment. It suggests defining the collective and personal responses to the differences by examining the factors responsible for defining the disability affected by the cultural, economic, political and social aspects.

This part also requires to study the reasons of those disabilities which can’t be described and measured accurately by the biomedical science. It also seeks to identify the relationship between the stigmatizing physical or mental issues and medical practice despite the fact that the latest researches in the medical field can be useful.

  1. While this study is focused on the physical and mental issues and disabilities, it also looks for the ways to broaden the views and perspective of literature, culture, history, and policies at the national as well as international level. This will be helpful in developing the field of study and learning about disabilities from the experiences of different places gained in different times and situations.
  2. An active involvement of disabled faculty and students and allowing the access to physical and intellectual resources, an open and improved learning environment can be achieved. This should also include having disabled people in the key roles and motivating other peoples with the same goal to contribute to the development of this discipline.

Disability studies in the physical and social context

Theoretically, a disability can be the result of 1. An impairment of body functions like physical and psychological experiences, and 2. A defect of the body structure. This difference was defined by ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health) produced by the World Health Organization.

Different conceptual models are used to understand the disability and explain its integration with the study. They are discussed as below.

Medical model

The medical model was derived from the biomedical way of viewing a disability. The theorists of this discipline consider a physical limitation and impairment that can either be treated and cured or can be fixed with some other means and support. However, it also takes social factor into consideration as the results may largely depend on how a disabled person is perceived in the family and the society.

This module requires an undisturbed medical care in order to cure the disability. According to the supporters of this model, a disability is a health condition of a person and hence should be treated by the professionals with longanimity. The result can be a complete cure or an assumed cure or the person’s readiness to adjust with the situation that can make him or her comfortable with the disability which also can be considered as a cure. Since the social model considers the medical care as the main issue, reform or modification of the health care policy is the best possible, to be done by the political powers.

Social model

The social model views the impairment and disability in a different meaning. According to this model, an impairment can be described as a physical incapability and limitation of doing things that a person with a normal body can do.

But a disability is more about social perception and assumption that keeps a person with a physical impairment from accessing the social benefits because they don’t fit in the normal body functions assumed by the society. This means the issue is not with the people with impairments but with the society that fails to accept the bodies with diverse sets of capabilities and this can also be called social disability.

The social model has also faced the criticism in the last few decades for separating the disability form the physical impairment with an easy explanation. This module can be useful in motivating activism, identifying affected groups and making disability more understandable. Social terms and concepts along with narratives act as a base for helping us understand the body, so we can say we see it the way it is shaped by the social forces. However, the social model can also help further improve the way we think and learn about the disability.

Other models

Moral model – This is often due to the cultural beliefs and old views about the morality and personal actions. Disabled people are often seen as responsible for their own physical or mental condition due to their or their parents’ karma.

Social adapted model – the accepted limitations may not always be due to the physical disability but may be due to the society and environment.

Economic model – This model considers the disability of a person in terms of inability to work and perform with full capacity that results into the reduced productivity which in turn results into the negative effects on the society and the individual himself.

Spectrum model – This model considers the capability of ears, senses, and vision and asserts that a reduced capacity or operation of these parts can’t necessarily be considered as a disability.

The expert/professional model –It stems from the medical model and represents the professional way of identifying the physical and mental impairments and their limitations. The identification done using the medical model is then taken as a base for the necessary steps to change the situation and position of the disabled person.

The market model – This represents the consumerist model of the rights of disabled people. They are seen as a large group of voters by the politicians, consumers by the producers and the employees by employers and collectively affect the statistics in the economy. The people with disabilities are encouraged to see their situation as a means to be used for the financial improvements.

According to this model, the companies and government will serve the needs that are pushed by the demand due to the large demographics when this type of political practice becomes popular in the society.

Empowering model – Also known as a customer model, this model provides the benefit of the choice. The course of treatment that is chosen by the disabled person or his family. The person as a client can take a decision guided by the professional. The professional acts as a service provider and provides the necessary information which will be useful in the decision making. Thus, this model is called an empowering model in which a person is encouraged to decide his course of action.

Consumer model – The core of this model is the concept of equal rights for the disabled people. It is a right-based model and is focused on providing the access to products and services in an equal manner to the people with disabilities.

The companies are encouraged or enforced by the law to make the necessary arrangements to market and engage the disabled people and make all products and services available to them which are available to the normal people.

Tragedy/Charity model – This model, along with the medical model, is used to define what is a disability in which the disabled people deserves the charity and pity as they are the victims of the physical tragedy and hard circumstances.

The legitimacy model – This model views disability and physical or mental impairment as a value-based determination that considers the membership to the disability category. Multiple explanations and models are allowed to be used as a purpose or goal.

Narrative Prosthesis – Relationship of disability and narrative

Disability and narrative are unavoidably connected, as physically disabled characters act as a crutch in a story with which the elements of emotions, mental strength, struggle and other can be effectively narrated.

It has been a long-time trend of showing people with physical and mental disabilities in the highlighted manner or as a foreground as explained in the book Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, written by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder.

They have stated that a disability is used as a dominant factor of the characterization and as a device to take an advantage of the metaphor in the literary narrative.

One of the great examples of narrative disability is Captain Ahab of the novel Moby-Dick written by Herman Melville in 1851, in which his fanaticism and evilness became an evidence of his disability. There are many other examples from the literature of famous authors like William Shakespeare and Sophocles.

However, some scholars of the field of disability studies are also of the opinion that disability in narrative fails to represent itself as a strong viewpoint. When a character is shown as disabled, it becomes its main narrative that moves the main idea to the second place. When it is featured in a work, it is mostly used as a symbol or as a comparative object.

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