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Defining Disability


This semester, we have talked about images, portrayals, and stigmas of individuals with disabilities in the media. However, what are disabilities? Let’s take a look at how disabilities are currently defined and protected.

Definitions of disability and beauty have changed over time; “concepts of beauty and comeliness were different when physical injury, smallpox marks, and other scarring were more common” (Disability and History). The Americans with Disabilities Act was originally written in 1990, and originally required business, buildings, transportation, public transportation, and other services to accommodate the disabled. Currently, the ADA defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability” (What is the definition of Disability under the ADA?).

Thankfully, the ADA has made strides in the world of disability services. ADA covers a broad spectrum of disability-related situations.

1. Title I: Employment

2. Title II: Public Services

3. Title III: Public Accommodations

4. Title IV: Telecommunication

5. Title V: Miscellaneous

The breadth of scenarios covered under ADA is helpful for the various cases that qualify for protection under the law. However, “the lines drawn around disability through words, laws, and customs are largely arbitrary and situational” ("It's Complicated"). Wealth, race, religion, power, talent, and even location often pay a large role in singling out people who are different.

Religious beliefs have impacted the perspective of individuals with disabilities. In colonial America, “many Christians believed that the impairment was a punishment. Others thought certain disabilities indicated possession by an evil spirit. In contrast, some American Indian groups did not have words for disability, and instead focused on how a person fulfilled obligation to the community” ("God is Testing You").

In the early 1800s, American charitable efforts focused on people with disabilities. To this day, philanthropy has had to “contend with the fine line between paternalism and empowerment” ("Help the Handicapped").

In the 20th century, Western medicine became more incorporated into daily life. Health practitioners and scientists closely studied human variations. Some variations and human conditions were categorized as deficits. The perspective was that these deficits should be treated, prevented, or fixed, largely because at this point, these corporeal differences could be treated; “the person became a patient with her or his individuality transformed into a medical case” ("What is Wrong with You?").

People have strong opinions about whether such things as addiction, attention deficit disorder, and PTSD are disabilities. Nevertheless, some people have begun to place disability in a category similar to that of ethnicity, skin color, and gender. The diversity that disability provides to society is revered by some. As the struggle continues on, one thing is for sure: “[This generation] is the most educated generation of disabled people we ever had” (What's Changed in 20 Years Since ADA Passage).


Disability and History. (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

What is the definition of disability under the ADA? (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

What's Changed in 20 Years Since ADA Passage [Interview by T. Cox]. (2010, July 28). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

"God is Testing You" (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

"Help the Handicapped" (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

"It's Complicated" (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from

"What is Wrong with You?" (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2016, from