Let’s talk language
Disability is a sensitive topic. Fear of saying something wrong prevents people from having conversations about disability.
Are the terms “disability” and “disabled” the same? Disability and disabled both describe functional limitations. The term disability is used to refer to individual functioning, including physical, sensory, cognitive, and various types of chronic disease. Many activists and academics prefer to use the term “disabled” in a way that focuses on the disability being part of a person’s identity, as in “disabled person”.
The change to “people-first language” brought the term “people with disabilities”, which emphasizes putting the person first and the disability second. In Canada, the government uses “people-first” language.
Some people outside of the disability community tend to use euphemistic terms like “differently-abled” or “diverse-ability”. This suggests that there is something wrong with talking candidly about disability. This is not necessary. For most, referring to someone as a “person with a disability” or being “disabled” is fine.
Another term you may have heard is ableism. Ableism can be defined as the “ideology of ability,” in which life without disability is preferable to life with disability. In this way of thinking, disability is a problem that needs to be eradicated.
Ableism is considered prejudice and discriminatory toward individuals. For example, when business owners create physical or virtual spaces that are not accessible, they are posing barriers for people with disabilities, displaying an ablistic attitude.
There are two main models of understanding disability – the social model and the medical model. These are broad perspectives that determine how government and society meet the needs of people with disabilities.
Although models of disability may be incomplete and may not reflect the real world, they provide a useful framework to understand disability issues.
The Medical Model of Disability
This model presents disability as a problem of the person, directly caused by a health condition which requires continuous medical care by professionals. The Medical Model places the source of the problem within the person. In this model, management of disability focuses on a “cure,” or on behavioural change that would “rehabilitate” the individual.
The Medical Model often sees people with disabilities as dependent upon society. Policy responses are often paternalistic, which can lead to the discrimination and segregation of people with disabilities.
The Social Model of Disability
In this model, disability is not a characteristic of an individual. It is the result of a complex set of conditions, many of them created by the social environment. This perspective is based on the notion that “disability” is a socially created problem, and an issue that can be addressed with the integration of individuals into society.
In this framework, there is a focus on making environmental (and other) changes to eliminate barriers, a responsibility of society at large. This approach inevitably leads to empowerment and equality.
In this model, the environment and society can even be more limiting than the disability itself. However, eliminating barriers requires individual, community, and social change. People with disabilities are experts about their own experiences and they have an integral role to play in the elimination of barriers. They can identify issues and help devise solutions.
Designing with everyone in mind
Since the mid-1980s, universal design has aimed to create a better quality of life for everyone, through construction of the built en