Disability Is …?

(Originally posted July 2009 at Feministe, three rivers fog.)

We had a really good discussion about nondisability. It got derailed, a bit, because it depended on our ability to reasonably define disability. And it’s a subject that has come up in every discussion we’ve had these couple weeks. What is it?

I advocate an intentionally overbroad definition of disability. And I definitely see a tendency, with certain medical conditions, not to identify — on that inner level, what “feels right” — as disabled.

I support every person’s right to self-determination, to define their own experiences, and to identify however feels most right for them. I do not want to try to pressure people into identifying in a way they do not feel comfortable. But I do think that part of this tendency, this reticence, is rooted in a sort of ableism. Not ableism as in “internalized negative feelings about PWD” — but ableism as in “a certain understanding of how the world works and how society is/should be structured” … or, you might say, a certain model.

I want to explore a few things — explore our assumptions behind the word “disabled.”


Think, for a minute: visualize a disabled person. Just a generic idea of a disabled person. What would you say are the requirements to qualify as disabled?

Do you have to be disabled — in a dictionary definition sort of way? Disabled, unable, incapable? Unable to work, or unable to participate in social activities, or unable to take care of oneself? Is there a certain level of un-able-ness one must reach to qualify as disabled?

If so, what do you call the people who don’t reach that level — but who share many, if not all of the exact same problems with accessibility in society, who face the same obstacles in their path, the same ignorance and hostility? The people who have the same condition, but face different accessibility problems because they are trying to navigate the workplace, living independently — who are able to do these things — but who still have to fight with the outside world to be able to live their life how they want to?

Are these people disabled? No? Are they abled, then? Are they privileged over the people who meet that level of un-able-ness?

Am I “temporarily able-bodied” because I can push myself enough to work full-time?
Because I can walk? Drive? Prepare meals? Go to sports events and concerts?
What about the fact that I still have to fight with my doctors over medication? That I still have to approach HR at work to tell them about everything I need to be able to work there?
What about the fact that without the drugs I am taking and my TENS machine and my access to health care and workplace accommodations and accessible parking, all of a sudden I wouldn’t be able to do those things anymore?

Is my disability about my inner feelings when I get home and slouch in pain — is it about what is going on in my body? Because I still have pain, whether I am well-treated and working or untreated and housebound. I still have fatigue. I still struggle when I stand up from a sitting position, still need help getting out of the car if I haven’t taken at least a few painkillers already that day. All that stuff is still there.

Or is it that my disability something beyond me — not having to do with me at all? Not defined by what is going on inside my body, but defined by whether society is working with my body or working against it?


I’m going to let you in on a secret. A lot of us people who do fit the classic dictionary definition of “disabled”don’t feel “disabled” either. We don’t always feel un-able. We feel like “just people.” Normal people living a normal life, just happen to have some sort of neurological or physiological difference, but that isn’t our defining characteristic or something that is always forefront in our minds, it’s just one part of us that doesn’t always make that big a difference in our life at all.


Remember, briefly, the social and medical models of disability.

Under the medical model, a person must justify their claim to disability. A person must fit neatly into a narrow diagnosis with a Latin-based name. The person must be cleanly categorized. Their experiences must fit a prepared check list.

The medical model says that your body fails to be normal in this particular way: so we must devise a way to force it to be normal, and that will solve the problem.

Naturally, such an approach to disability will wind up excluding a good many people who don’t fit those boxes cleanly, who appear close to normal — and that just can’t be right; there must be a logical explanation, like that they are over-worrying, imagining things, that they like being sick and want the world to treat them with kid gloves. After all, there is no proof that they deviate from the normal — so they have failed to justify themselves as different.

The medical model, in this way, denies community and services to people who still face considerable obstacles to full participation in society because they have failed to prove that they deserve that “special treatment.” They have failed to prove themselves as disabled enough. They aren’t “other” enough to be Othered.

The medical model imposes strict and narrow definitions — which become boundaries which must be policed.

What do you do when you’re caught in the middle? Different, but not different enough to be Othered, but still needing services (benefits, accommodations) which are only given to Others.


Informed by the social model, “disability” becomes a marker not for condition (mental or physical) — not for “what I feel inside, what I experience inside” — but instead for the fact that our condition is maligned or neglected (or both) by the rest of society.

Disability is not a matter of my condition, but a matter of the group I am assigned because of that condition.

Perhaps it could be said as such: Disability is not a condition, it is a status.


The classic analogy to explain the social model is this:

Many sighted people have less-than-perfect sight. If assistive devices — glasses or contact lenses — were not so widely available and accessible, many of these people would be prevented from full participation in many aspects of society.

But because society sees fit to prioritize this assistance, to make sure glasses/contacts are widely available and accessible so that every less-than-perfect sighted person can have clearer vision — because society decided that no person should be blocked from access because of hir different vision — this condition is no longer a disability.

This is a useful thought experiment. But it is not a perfect analogy. Many blind people still face considerable access blocks. This only really applies to people who are sighted, but whose sight is not precisely “normal.” Perhaps because society can, for the most part, bring abnormally-sighted people to normal-sightedness, whereas it cannot do the same to blind folk.

There’s a lot to explore here.


The word disability isn’t perfect. I don’t know that I would choose it, were we to start over with a blank slate. Nor do I know that most people who are active in the disability community would choose it.

What I do know is this: people who don’t feel, literal-dictionary-definition disabled, embrace the word and run with it. They can make it something all their own.

Queer is a less-than-perfect word when you consider its literal definition, too. Yet the queer community has decided that they’re gonna take this thing and make it into what they want it to be. And they’re making something pretty damn awesome.

I don’t feel dis-abled. I feel people-are-willfully-ignorant and access-to-good-care-is-restricted-in-unnecessary-ways and the-medical-industry-has-no-respect-for-me. Among other things.

And I’m sure other disabled folk feel why-isn’t-there-a-wheelchair-ramp-for-this-public-use-building and nobody-has-to-accommodate-my-needs-until-they-get-sued-why-don’t-we-have-an-oversight-board-that-makes-them-do-it-right-from-the-fucking-start and you-aren’t-providing-alternatives-so-I-can-access-your-lecture-even-though-I-can’t-[hear-what-you-speak/see-what-you-write/be-there-in-person-at-all]. Among other things.

People who identify as disabled (or are identified as such by society) don’t necessarily always think the dictionary definition of the word applies to them. There are disabled people in wheelchairs or braces who still work, still have families, still go to parties. There are disabled people who appear totally abled yet can’t work, can’t perform certain self-care, and so on.

The word “disability,” in the disability movement right now, already refers to a great variety of individual conditions, abilities, approaches…

And for the most part, when a person appears whose condition challenges the current boundaries of abled/disabled, the disability community is completely ready to revise their assumptions and welcome that person (and hir companions) into the movement.

Because, here’s the thing…


The disability movement has a lot to offer to a lot of different people — not all of those people who may identify as disabled.

And this is part of why I do not want to pressure people to change their identification. They don’t have to identify as a disabled person, or a person with a disability, to still become a part of the disability movement, to benefit from it, to help move it forward.

What I am wanting to do is not change people’s minds about how they individually self-identify. What I want to do is explore the cultural phenomenon that is certain groups rejecting the label of disability.

Anyway: the disability movement is working hard to change the way we approach the world. From an approach that excludes non-normal people to an approach that stops INcluding by certain standards and starts just treating all persons as fundamentally human, period.

Under the current system, when a woman becomes pregnant and plans to keep the child, we expect the child to be free of disability. What’s that refrain from the supposedly-gender-enlightened? “I don’t care whether it’s a girl or a boy, as long as the baby comes out healthy!

When we encounter a person, we expect that person to be abled. When we imagine a “person” — just a generic, default person — we imagine that person as able-normative.

Currently, things go like this: 1. World expects “normal.” 2. Non-normal people come along. 3. Oops!

What disabled people want is more like this: 1. World is prepared for any number of different things. 2. We come along. 3. Hey, we were expecting you!

This approach is what defines the disability movement. We want to change the world so that the world stops treating us as unexpected — and therefore a disappointment — and therefore has not prepared for us — and therefore we have to constantly fight with the world to make it change every little individual thing it has set up wrong.

This approach, applied broadly, has benefits for so many more people than only the classically, dictionary-definition disabled.

This is the world I want to live in (bold emphasis added)…

My body isn’t the enemy, I realized.

It’s not my physical self that creates all my problems.

It’s all the external expectations of it.

Disability isn’t the result of individual defects, deviations from the able-bodied norm. Disability is the result of a society that fails to accommodate these differences.

What if we saw these differences as variation, not deviation? After all, we fully expect our children to be born with any number of different eye colors. Why is it any less when it comes to physical and mental abilities?

Can you shape a world in your mind where there is no norm? What does it look like? How does it differ from the world you live in today? What do you expect of people as a whole in order to support those currently disadvantaged?

The more I think, the more confused I become. It seems impossible to structure society so that everyone is brought to a similar level of ability across the board. But it does seem possible to structure society so that those fully-abled work to make up for those straightforwardly lacking, and everyone works with each other in full expectation of a wide range of ability across the populace, and all of this is seen not as hassling and burdensome, noble and heroic when someone takes it on—but as mundane, everyday, simply expected, no different from separating out your recyclables or driving on the right side of the road: something that everybody does, because it isn’t that hard to do, and it benefits yourself as well as those around you, so it’s stupid and even outright reprehensible not to.

That is the world I want to live in.

[Reading back, I cringe at the use of the words “straightforwardly lacking.” Proof that we are all still learning, still building.]

What if things did happen that way? What if we just rushed to give, knowing that those around us would rush to give back?

and in this POV, the centering of individualism falls apart — because that’s not what life is about. life is give and take, push and pull, you do this for me (that i don’t do well/don’t like to do, but that i want/need) and i’ll do this for you (that i do well/like to do, and you want/need).

disability, really, when you get down to it, is the ultimate unraveling of that ball of individualism — it FORCES you to look at all these little things that go into the living of a life, and realize that not all of them are yours to do or yours to control — and also to realize how many of those little things YOU affect for OTHER people’s lives — and to finally give up, and fall back into the arms of the community.

it means you have to stop looking at things as “mine, yours, this person’s, that person’s” etc. you have to stop keeping the damn tally — and just rush to give, knowing that those around you will rush to give back…

so many people are afraid to admit that ultimately, they DO depend on the people around them, and their accomplishments are not solely their own, and the things they do, affect people besides themselves. but it’s all true! and it’s not a bad thing, if you look at it the right way.

This is everything we are trying to change.

And when we are successful: it will be good for so many people. It will benefit a great many, people who might not consider themselves part of this movement, but who will see their life become substantially easier or better, because this movement has destroyed the system that puts obstacles in their path.


There is a lot people can learn from the disability movement — even if they don’t consider themselves a part of it.

This is why I, and others, explicitly tie our disability activism to our feminism. Believe it or not, there are things that non-disabled feminists can learn from disabled ones about how to refine, how to better our (not their, OUR) feminist movement.

There are things the disability movement is accomplishing that the feminist movement has fallen short on. Things that disability activists are paying attention to that feminists have forgotten.

And it makes a difference in women’s lives.


There are substantial immediate benefits to individuals, as well. Many of you who do not feel “disabled” nonetheless benefit directly from the Americans with Disabilities act and other non-discrimination legislation. And that’s only in the realm of the state (legal sense).

Consider the pharmaceutical industry. The alternative medicine industry. Consider protections on health insurance that prevent companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions or prevent them from denying certain treatments.

These are all things the disability movement has had part in. Often, the disability movement has been the sole force pushing for these things — when other movements fall short, and forget us.

And there is, therefore, substantial benefit to involving oneself in the disability movement. Because it is working for you. So it will do good for you and for us if you directly engage with it — help it refine its purpose — help direct its actions — help challenge preconceptions.

If you will stand with us, if you will be — a friend, or a family member — whatever role you feel comfortable taking, we will stand, sit, lean or lie beside you. We will be there with you, however you identify.

We want more people to engage with us — on an honest, good-faith level.

Some of those people will find themselves beginning to identify as a part of this movement, as a person with a disability. Some people will not, but will remain our friend, our ally.

No matter which: we are happy to have you.


ETA: I really should have included a link to this post from Joel at NTs Are Weird — from the perspective of the autistic community. I ain’t the only one beating this drum! I remember reading this post a long while back, and it has informed my politics a great deal. And I think it is necessary reading for anyone engaging with the disability movement. And he does a great job wrapping up the many elements of this post! 😉 Take it away (bold emphasis mine):

Welcome to the disability community! […]

Yes, that’s right, you’re DISABLED. Yep, you can pick that word apart and tell me why you aren’t, but, trust me, you are. And, no, I don’t mean that you are less or more functional than anyone else. I mean that you are part of a community defined by society’s institutions and programs, a community formed because of our minority status and the fact that society expects certain strengths and weaknesses, and anyone who doesn’t have that same pattern of strengths and weaknesses is going to have trouble in this society.

Yep, that’s the social model. It’s not the “OH MY GOD, I AM SO BROKEN AND LIFE SUCKS AND I WANT TO BE NORMAL BECAUSE EVERYTHING WOULD BE WONDERFUL AND I WOULD HAVE LOTS OF MONEY AND A GIRLFRIEND AND A NICE CAR” view of disability. But it is recognition that we have trouble in society as it is currently set up. You’ll also notice that it is not a view that accepts society as a static, unchangeable, and morally good entity, but rather as an institution that can and should change – even when people have a hard time seeing how it could.

In addition to this, I want you to know that there is “nothing new under the sun.” You don’t need to reinvent disability theory […]

One example – although the victory isn’t yet fully realized – find out why there public transit has to at least make *some* effort at accommodation in the US. Yep, I know it still sucks, and there are tons of problems – I’m not saying anything different. But I can assure you of this: Without good advocacy, there wouldn’t be a wheelchair lift on any bus except one owned by a nursing home – and even that one might not have one.

Find out why people with cerebral palsy can go to US schools today, even if their natural speech is hard to understand, thanks to assistive technology and good law. Sure, schools, technology, and law aren’t good enough yet, but they are way better than they were 40 years ago. Why?

Better yet, learn how you can make a bus in your city more accessible both to yourself and to someone with a different kind of disability. Learn about your schools and what can be done to help others with disability. Not just autistic people, but people with all types of disabilities. Do you know what you will find if you do this? You’ll find out quickly that it also helps you, even if that wasn’t the goal of the movement.

For those of you who are already doing these things – thanks! It’s good for us to stop reinventing the wheel once in a while.


  1. This reminded me of something my dad’s lawyer asked me when they were determining whether to continue child support:

    “Can you take care of yourself?”

    Over and over again, she asked. Of course I can’t, I can’t drive, I shouldn’t live completely alone.

    “No, no, can you get yourself dressed? Take a shower by yourself?”

    Head, meet desk.
    .-= Kaitlyn´s last blog ..The Franken Senate Defense Appropriations Amendment =-.

  2. It took me YEARS (as in, about 20 yrs after RA dx at age 10) to embrace the disability label and movement. For me to get there took a small group of like minded women on the internet all struggling with various invisible challenges to talk and work through our feelings about disability, accessing supports (such as a car placard), and how to stand up and demand accomodations without being shamed and silenced about our needs. I’m finally there, and at 37yo, I’m finally able to embrace the word, and the movement. Just in time too… I have a 12yo son on the autistic spectrum, and I needed to embrace my issues to teach him how to be proud and stand up for his needs.

  3. I’d like to present some links that could be useful further reading on these topics. I just hope I don’t get caught in any spam filters for providing several links.

    The first one is from The Perorations of Lady Bracknell. She addresses some really common misconceptions about the social and medical models. Her article is useful for people new to these ideas, many people not new to them, and especially anyone who has ever believed that the social model means impairments don’t cause problems on their own, or that the medical model is the model that good medical professionals ought to use. The link is Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.

    Then there’s some things by a writer named Cal Montgomery. She’s cognitively and physically disabled, but has been pressured by physically disabled people to pass as purely physically disabled (the same thing happens to me sometimes). She frequently criticizes the entire concept of “invisible disability”, saying that it makes it sound like the “invisibility” is happening as a trait of the disabled person rather than a lack of understanding in the particular observer. I see very few other people tackling that idea and I think she’s absolutely correct. She talks about it in a lot of places, but her two best articles on the topic are A Hard Look At Invisible Disability and Tangled in the Invisibility Cloak.

    I’ve been challenged enough (told I’m making crap up, basically) when I say that autistic people who can pass for non-autistic are usually visible if you understand what to look for, that at one point I got fed up when writing a post that dealt with that, and wrote up a detailed description of precisely what combinations of things are visible to me that are invisible to people who have no idea what to look for. (I then got criticized for writing a “DIY autie-spotting guide”, but that was absolutely not my intention. I was just trying to be concrete about something to avoid being accused of lying.) For people who have trouble imagining how something could be invisible to them but visible to people who know what to look for, this post I wrote might be useful. (Note that I use a lot of terms in it to refer to other people’s perceptions, that I would never use myself.)
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Stuff I’ve been reading. =-.

  4. Thanks, Amanda – pulled you out of spam (was indeed the links :)).

  5. Thanks for this blog! And for this post.
    .-= Cinnamon Girl´s last blog ..All aboard the clue boat… =-.

  6. Lovely to see an American blog addressing the social and medical models of disability!

    Great post. Many thanks.
    .-= Naomi (lilwatchergirl)´s last blog ..What I’ve Been Reading =-.

  7. Naomi – Glad you enjoyed the post! For the record, this isn’t an American blog – our contributors are from all over the world.

  8. My disability is that of having been stigmatized as a “mental patient” and being subject to the stereotypes and discrimination that accompany that identification.

  9. This is a really great post which I would direct other people to in my attempt to get across concepts of identification (by self and by others), terminology, and how they affect how people treat each other.
    .-= Ang´s last blog ..The ‘hello’ post. =-.

  10. Abby Jean: Oops, I saw some US language and assumed – apologies. Interesting to see an international blog addressing such ideas, all the same. It can be hard to tell which ideas about disability are international, especially when language can vary. A great blog you’ve got here.
    .-= Naomi (lilwatchergirl)´s last blog ..NaBloPoMo =-.

  11. This was a great article, and some of the other comments added quite a bit. Glad to see mention of Cal Montgomery’s work on this issue.
    I was involved in the DR movement before I became disabled myself in 1995, and thus I already knew the social model of disability. What I was not prepared for, when I became disabled due to chronic illness, was how ill-adapted the social model was (at that time; there has been much improvement — DRM is a bigger tent now) to deal with the medical/illness aspects of many who are disabled.
    My friends and I often found ourselves caught between trying to explain to ABs that no, it wasn’t JUST the illness holding us back, it was also the access problems, and to other PWDs that no, it wasn’t JUST the access, it was also the illness itself (truly!) holding us back.
    I was once invited to be on a disability-themed radio show to talk about my work writing and cartooning about disabilities. The theme for the show was “falling down stories,” and I had a good one he wanted me to tell about my service-dog-in-training pulling my 200-pound scooter on top of me. As I was talking, I referred to myself as “sick.” The host stopped me and challenged me on using what he felt was problematic terminology. Since my humor column and cartoon series were called “Sick Humor,” I was surprised he hadn’t seen it coming! I explained that my disability is caused by a chronic illness — that I do feel sick almost all the time, so I use “disabled” and “sick” interchangeably about myself, but wouldn’t about someone who didn’t have a similar illness. He didn’t seem happy with my answer.
    I think there is much more awareness of the vast range of disabilities now, among DR activists, and how some of us straddle multiple worlds/”types” of disabilities. I personally have undergone the experience of having been disabled by one set of disabilities, and then becoming much more disabled, and in many new ways, by new illnesses. I find that to the general (AB) world, I was already disabled, and they don’t see the huge degree of difference. Among the community of people who have my new disease, though all are “disabled” to one degree or another, as in your article, almost none identify as a PWD. Their illness is their primary identity, and they don’t seem to feel much kinship with people with other illnesses or disabilities.
    (A side note: I understand why they do this. I am, in fact, carefully avoiding naming the new disease I have because I know that the picture the name conjures will be so far afield from the actual severity and diversity of functional limitation this disease has wrought, that to name it feels like I’m inviting an erasure of my experience.)
    In the “general” disability community, there seems to be much more acceptance of the fluidity and multiplicity of disability, in part, I think, because of the existence of progressive disabilities (which is how I usually describe my change in situation) and in part because we’re just more used to “difference” as NORMAL.
    This is a great site. Wish I knew about it before. Will spread the link.