Why disability is biological, psychological, sociological, and political
Disability exists in the world in the reality of individuals’ physical conditions, however it also exists in the psyche of everyone. Disability is so much bigger than just a condition affecting individuals, it is affected by ideas, it informs ideas, and in turn affects society and society affects the individuals. In this post we explore the different aspects of disability to get a bigger picture of how disability plays out in the world.
Disability is firstly biological. It refers to physical and mental conditions, symptoms, diagnoses, treatment, rehabilitation, adaptation, prevention, and cures. Disability is about bodies and minds, mechanics and chemicals, medicine and surgery, therapy and repair. On a biological level, disability is about difference, learning to cope with difference, and accepting that everyone is different. Disability is a deviation from the norm. Disability can be about trying to make biology more normal and less different. But what is the norm anyway?
Disability is also psychological: for the disabled individual and also for the others around them. Disability is about self-image, education, social skills, internalized ableism, empowerment, and disability prejudice. It’s a matter of how we process our disabilities, the way we are treated and how we present ourselves. Disability is psychological because it is about dealing with the people around us in relation to our disabilities. It’s about understanding yourself and what disability means to you as an individual. Disability is psychological for able-bodied individuals – it is a way of being we try to understand and normalise.
Disability enters the socio realm through a lens of ableism. Ableism refers to discrimination in favour of ‘able-bodied’ people and is at the root of a lot of the prejudice and stigma around disability. Ableism is institutional and systemic. However, society is changing and as disability enters the psychology of more people, the overall ideology of society change. There is hope. Disability is about hope and equality and progress. It’s about how society and culture creates, uses, and modifies the category of disability, and how we can deal with that and redefine disability on our own terms, together, as a group. It’s about understanding disability as a social phenomenon.
Disability is about accessibility, disability cultural identity, and disability history. Legislation, film, and media contribute to normalizing disability culture and sharing disability history. For example, the recent film CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion shares the history of disability on screen. Awareness campaigns like the UN’s International Day of People with Disability bring disability into the sociological space.
Disability is about activism, coalition-building, and disability policy. It is the work to improve the quality of everyday life for persons with disabilities through policies and systemic changes. Disability is political when it enters into debates, results in protest, and represents a unified group of people wanting to be heard. Disability is political when every citizen is expected to vote. What does it mean to vote and what does it mean to be able to vote? Something is political if it subverts the norm and challenges status quo. Disability establishes a different norm, makes norms unstable, and challenges the status quo of ableism. Disability is about using political action to make things better.
What’s your go-to?
Anyone with a disability, or anyone who thinks about disability, approaches it in one of the above ways. We naturally tend to think of an issue as one sided, but disability is multi-faceted and functions in the world on many different levels. It can be helpful to understand that disability is not only biological, not only political, but all of these things. At different times we think of it in different ways. But remember the big picture. If we want to generate change, it might require looking at a different facet of disability than we are used to thinking about.