Social construction of disability

The social construction of disability is the idea that society and its institutions have the power to construct disability around social expectations of health.[1] This idea argues that disability is construction based on several localized social expectations. For example, in the medieval period disability was constructed around a person's moral behavior. Disability was seen as divine punishment or a side effect of a moral failing being physically or biologically different was not enough to be considered disabled. Only until the European Enlightenment did society change its definition of disability to be more related to biology. However these biological definitions of health centered around what is considered to be healthy for most Western Europeans.[2]


Around the year 1970, in North America various groups including sociologists, disabled people, and disabled focused political groups began to pull away from the accepted medical lens of viewing disability. These groups began to discuss things like oppression, civil rights, and accessibility. This change in discourse resulted in conceptualizations of disability that was rooted in social constructions.[2]


Canada and the United States have operated under the premise that social assistance benefits should not exceed the amount of money that can be earned through labor in order to give citizens an incentive to search for and maintain employment. This has led to widespread poverty amongst disabled citizens. In the 1950s, disability pensions were established and included various forms of direct economic assistance; however, these amounts were set at exceedingly low monetary levels. Since the 1970s, both governments have viewed unemployed disabled citizens as excess labor due to continuous high rates of unemployment and have made minimal attempts to increase employment, which keeps disabled people at poverty- level incomes due to the ‘incentive’ principle. Poverty is the most debilitating circumstance handicapped people face, resulting in the inability to afford proper medical, technological and other assistance necessary to participate in society.[3]

Laws and public policyEdit

Laws have helped to recognize disability as a social construct rather than simply physical impairment. In 1776, the Continental Congress passed the first national law regarding wounded soldiers. Rather than stating attitudes towards disability, the act proposed that how the US viewed disability was closely linked to its views about the worth of the soldiers. This segment of the Act contains a few inferences which relate to disability:

"Whereas, in the course of the present war, some commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the army and navy, as also private soldiers, marines, and seamen, may lose a limb, or be otherwise so disabled as to prevent their serving in the army or navy, or getting their livelihood, and may stand in need of relief[.]"[4]

Although this resolution related disability to “getting a livelihood,” it also implies through the recognition of an additional connection to serving in the military that disability is not just a failure to function properly but rather built systemically through the ability to function in certain settings. Also, this resolution states that disability is not only based upon physical capabilities and societal roles but social aspects as well.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is a prime example of how laws have changed the societal roles of disabled people. The Act was signed by President Bush in July 1990. It prohibited the discrimination of disabled people by employers and also required that mass transportation, commercial buildings and public accommodations be accessible to disabled people. After the law was passed, Congress realized that many people with disabilities were secluded from society and could not live independently. Before the ADA was made into a law, disabled people could not land a job, enter a restaurant or store, or access the bus. A 1986 poll revealed that 66 percent of disabled citizens were jobless, in spite of the fact that many proclaimed they desired and were capable of employment. The same poll showed that 40 percent of handicapped people could not find a job due to the inaccessibility of transportation and public places[citation needed]. As a result of implementation of the ADA, 6 million private businesses and 80,000 state and local governments made their facilities available to the disabled. In July 1992, the provisions of the Act incorporating 43 million disabled individuals in to the workforce were set into motion. Many business owners realized that the changes made to their establishment were of little financial consequence, typically under $500. The conditions of disabled people before and after this law was passed are examples of how society constructs disability through discrimination and physical barriers. By eliminating these obstacles, the disabled are more integrated into society.[5]

Assessment of disabilityEdit

In the United States, according to the Social Security Administration, to be considered "disabled," a claimant must provide medical evidence displaying proof of and severity of the impairment(s). Medical evidence comes from sources that have treated or evaluated the claimant for his/her impairment(s). Acceptable medical sources include medical professionals including licensed physicians, licensed or certified psychologists, licensed optometrists (only for purposes of establishing visual disorders), licensed podiatrists (only for purposes of establishing impairments of the foot and/or ankle), and qualified speech-language pathologists (only for purposes of establishing speech or language impairments). Qualified speech-language pathologists must be licensed by the State education in the State in which he/she practices, or hold a Certificate of clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.[6]

Applying for disability (and the assessment of) can take place in person at the Social Security field office, by telephone, by mail, or by filing online. The application process involves supplying a description of the impairment, treatment sources, and other information. A field office then verifies non-medical eligibility requirement (including age, employment, marital status, or Social Security coverage information) and sends the case to the state agency (Disability Determination Services, or DDS) for evaluation (DDS are state agencies that develop medical evidence and deciding whether or not a claimant - the person requesting disability benefits - is disabled or blind under the law).[7]



Since the invention of the television in the early 1900s, this medium has held a pervasive influence on our outlook on many aspects of society, disability being one of them. One example is how the 2000 Paralympics versus the Olympics were televised. The 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, one of the biggest in history, was barely acknowledged by mainstream media prior to the event. The Sydney Paralympic organizers worked extensively to try to solicit coverage of the Games. For more than two years, they negotiated with Channel 7 to broadcast the competitions. Channel 7 proposed that if the Paralympics paid them $3 million in case of lack of advertising revenue they would agree to broadcast the event. Eventually, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Channel 7 announced they would be broadcasting the Games and Channel 7 would “complement” the coverage with a highlights package that ran daily on its pay-TV Channel. ABC also promised to broadcast at least 60 minutes of daily highlights. Later on, ABC finally agreed to air a live broadcast of the opening and closing ceremonies. The opening and closing ceremonies were actually quite popular amongst viewers, watched by 2.5 million; however the rest of the games proved to be quite the opposite. While the Olympics were covered live throughout the entire event, the Paralympics apparently was not important enough to deserve the same live coverage before the initial showing. By deeming the disabled to be less important than those without disabilities and by separating the Olympics and Paralympics, disability is socially constructed.[8]


Over the last several decades, technology has transformed networks, services, and communication, and promoted convergence of telecommunications, computer use, etc. Technology changes, or, the Digital Revolution, has changed how people work, learn, and interact. The digital revolution has directed people to use computers, cell phones, and other technologies more and more. However, many people who use such technology experience a form of disability. Even if it is not physically visible, those with, for example, cognitive impairments, hand tremors, vision impairments, have some form of disability that don't allow them to be able to fully access technology the way that those without a "technological disability" do.

In "Disability and New Media" by Katie Ellis and Mike Kent state that "technology is often presented as a source of liberation; however, developments associated with Web 2.0 show that this is not always the case."[9] They go on to state that the technological advancement of Web 2.0 is tethered to social ideology and stigma which "routinely disables people with disability."[10]

In "Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media" Gregg Goggin and Christopher Newell call for an innovative understanding of new media and disability issues.[11] They trace developments ranging from telecommunications to assistive technologies, to offer a technoscience of disability which offers a global perspective on how people with disabilities are represented as users, consumers, viewers, or listeners of new media, by policymakers, corporations, programmers, and the disabled themselves.


Special education " a social construction whereby a society can label a group in order to isolate responsibility for that group's welfare and thereby protect normal sources of power. In education, society has created many social categories, including learning disabilities. Such social categories represent the structure of society. The success of special educations students who have learning disabilities seems to be measured in material terms; but if they don't have the opportunity to achieve this success, it is hard to turn to the American community for support, as so many people in this community condemn them for their differences[citation needed].

Thus, education tries to restore the idea of a moral community, one in which the members question what constitutes a good life, to form a reconceptualization of education, where physical and mental conditions would be seen as part of a range of abilities, where different talents were distributed in different ways, and all talents would be recognized. All students would be included in the educational network instead of being set apart as special cases, and it would be acknowledged that all humans have special needs and no one is normal.[12]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Freidson, Eliot (1970). Profession of Medicine: A Study of the Sociology of Applied Knowledge. Harper and Row Inc. pp. 205–207. ISBN 0-06-042205-X.
  2. ^ a b Davis, Lennard (2006). The Disability Studies Reader. Routledge 2nd edition. p. 197. ISBN 0415953340.
  3. ^ .Wendell, Wendell (1996). The Social Construction of Disability (PDF). Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. p. 60.
  4. ^ Liachowitz, Claire (1988). Disability as a Social Construct. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 0-8122-8134-9.
  5. ^ Stalcup, pp. 17, 23, 25
  6. ^ "Disability Evaluation Under Social Security Part II - Evidentiary Requirements". The United States Social Security Administration. Retrieved 2013-11-15.
  7. ^ "Disability Evaluation Under Social Security Part I - General Information". The United States Social Security Administration. Retrieved 2013-11-15.
  8. ^ Goggin, p.91
  9. ^ Ellis, Katie; Kent, Mike. Disability and new media. Routledge. ISBN 0-203-83191-8.
  10. ^ Ellis, Katie; Kent, Mike. Disability and new media. Routledge. ISBN 0-203-83191-8.
  11. ^ Goggin, Gerard; Newell, Christopher. Digital disability : the social construction of disability in new media. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-1844-2.
  12. ^ Capper, Colleen (July 1993). Educational Administration in a Pluralistic Society. State University of New York Pr. pp. 173–174, 176–177. ISBN 978-0791413739.


  • Goggin, Gerard. (2003). Digital Disability. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-1843-4.
  • Stalcup, Brenda. (1997). The Disabled. Current controversies series. Greenhaven Press. ISBN 1-56510-530-3.
  • Ellis, Katie. Kent, Mike. (2011). "Disability and New Media". Routledge. ISBN 0-203-83191-8.