Sunday, July 12, 2009

Disability: Models and Phrases

Something about disability rights advocates and their mode(s) of argumentation really drives me up the wall, though I have a hard time putting my finger on it. I've tilted as this particular windmill before (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) with edifying results and now a new poster at Feministe, amandaw, gives me cause to revisit the issue. I don't have any particular agenda at the moment other than to look at what ey's writing to see if I can tease out what it is, specifically, that is raising my hackles.

Let's start out with eir 2009-07-02 post and go from there. Right of the bat ey makes the following statement about the various models of disability:

There are a number of models, but the two primary models are the medical model and the social model. These are the two most often discussed because of the particular ways they conflict with one another.

The medical model centers around the individual. The medical model defines disability in opposition to the normal body/brain, as deviating from that model of normalcy, and any problems that arise in your life are seen as arising from your deviation. Thus, these problems are to be solved by addressing that deviation - by bringing your body/brain closer to the normal model.

The social model centers around the structure of society. The social model does not seek to define disability: instead, it proposes that the problem is that society is built such that many people are prohibited from full participation in society because of their differences. Under the social model, the problem is not the difference, the problem is that society does not accommodate that difference. -The problem is not the person- is a common refrain from champions of the social model.

In short, you might say: The cause of exclusion is not the disability. The cause of exclusion is how the rest of society treats disability. Therefore, what needs to be addressed to eliminate this exclusion is not the individual person’s condition. What needs to be addressed is how society is set up in such a way that this person faces trouble when attempting to exercise hir right to participation equal to that of a non-disabled person. What do you change? Not the person. Society.

I'd like to start by questioning the assertion that the medical model and the social model necessarily conflict with each other. These two models attribute the problems facing the disabled to different sources, and thus recommend different solutions, but both models can operate in tandem without raising a logical contradiction. Indeed, many enabling solutions for the disabled involve the combined application of both models. An archetypal example would be the wheelchair/wheelchair ramp. A wheelchair is a device that seeks to compensate for the inability to walk and is thus a solution arising from the medical model. A wheelchair ramp represents a modification of a traditional architectural element (stairs) specifically for the purpose of making buildings more accessible to the disabled; the widespread implementation of such ramps represents a change at a cultural level and thus derives from the social model.

While I suppose its possible to critique the above example, and welcome anyone who cares to do so, I think it amply demonstrates that the medical and social models can rub along together quite profitably. amandaw's presentation of the two models as fundamentally in conflict excludes this middle ground, effectively narrowing the range of acceptable discourse to the extremes at each end of a broad spectrum of possible solutions. Whatever genuine tensions exist between the two models can be greatly reduced by recognizing that the social model is appropriate for dealing with bona fide discrimination while the medical model is, perhaps, more appropriate for the rest.

My second issue with the above excerpt is that it doesn't stop to consider whether one model or another accurately describes external reality. This treatment of the various models appears to be endemic to the disability rights community at large; I've run across the same behavior in my previous encounters with them. They seem to take one of three major positions with regards to the question of empirics:

  1. The models operate apart from an independent, external reality; the question of how well they describe it is fundamentally meaningless.
  2. The models have an empiric component, but the degree of conformance is only one of many factors to consider when selecting the model that is most appropriate.
  3. The models have an empiric component which is of critical concern in selecting the best model.

I've run across many more people subscribing to some form of 1 or 2 than 3, and getting those who hold that third position to admit it is often like pulling teeth.

Which brings me to a criticism of the social model as defined on the Models of Disability page to which amandaw linked. This page provides two definitions of "disability" under the social model:

"the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others, due to physical or social barriers."


Under the social model, disability is caused by the society in which we live and is not the ‘fault’ of an individual disabled person, or an inevitable consequence of their limitations. Disability is the product of the physical, organizational and attitudinal barriers present within society, which lead to discrimination. The removal of discrimination requires a change of approach and thinking in the way in which society is organized.

Both definitions treat disability as an exclusively social phenomena, a position which, to speak plainly, is demonstrably false. A one-legged person will still have a tendency to fall over regardless of how society perceives eir condition; failure to acknowledge this fact is a glaring flaw in the social model.

Why the reluctance to say as much, even in passing? My take is that to do so undermines the general goal of people who hold to the social model. It's very easy to ask for unbounded accommodation if all of the problems that the disabled face are the result of society's bad attitude... who's in favor of perpetuating bigotry? However, if some of the challenges faced by the disabled are due to nothing more than physics, it suddenly becomes much more difficult to justify radical social change to make the lives of the disabled easier.

Before we move on from the discussion of models I want to call amandaw out on what seems to be a throw-away line:

You can try the Wikipedia page, but it appears to be written from an abled perspective, and of course the one model they promote besides the two above is the "market" model - how quintessentially white-American-male of them. A lesson in lenses.

What, specifically, makes the article "quintessentially white-American-male" and why does ey judge it to be written from an "abled perspective"? Making unsupported assertions do nothing to educate people, it's just preaching to the choir.

The other big chunk of eir post that I want to respond to is this section regarding the word "disability":

Think about the word "disability." There are so many problems to identify with using this particular word to describe a certain category of people. It uses negative language - the prefix "dis-" - to describe them, which sets the tone for all the discussion that follows. The word necessarily implies a lack of something, which is a screwy way to describe a set of people and leaves all sorts of trouble in its wake. And the assumption that people with disabilities do not have ability is kind of silly, isn’t it? Ability to do what? Maybe certain folks with disabilites cannot walk - or talk - or perform certain self-care tasks - or work for pay. But those people do have the ability to do a host of other things. Why is it only that-which-exists-in-opposition-to-abled-people which is important to identify? And why can these differences never be positive?

I'll be upfront here and state that I think a lot of the furor around "disability" and related words is the result of a) bad linguistics and b) special pleading. Let's start amandaw's concerns over the use of the prefix "dis-"; it denotes a lack of something, this is true, but I don't see much to justify eir assertion that it's "a screwy way to describe a set of people". People can also be "disempowered" and "disenfranchised"... does amandaw object to those words as well? The rationale behind these constructions is that people generally are/should be empowered/enfranchised, in which case we create words to highlight deviation from the expected. Ultimately this is a (subconscious) expression of a basic principle in information theory, that the amount of information contained in a symbol is inversely proportional to its frequency. We create symbols for anomalous events ("disenfranchised", "disabled", "disempowered") because its useful to be able to talk about them. Far from being screwy, its simply more efficient from a linguistic standpoint to note deviations from the norm.

And this, I think, goes back to what I was talking about earlier, the notion that there is an objective norm. "disability" and friends are only useful if the absence to which they refer is the norm in the statistical (as opposed to normative) sense. That this is true in unarguable; the majority of human beings share a stock set of capabilities derived from an underlying, shared anatomy. But to acknowledge this fact through the use of such words as "disabled", "disability", etc. undermines the contention that all disability is socially constructed, hence the reluctance to recognize the validity/utility of these descriptions.

I'm also going to take exception to eir analysis of the meaning of the word itself. Eir contention that the word connotes or denotes the complete absence of all capabilities is just balderdash; neither common usage nor dictionary definitions provide any support in that regard. Using eir method of analysis I can make the same claims about the words "disenfranchised" and "disempowered", though its clear that when we say that someone is "disempowered" we don't mean that they lack power in every place, time, and circumstance. Nor is "disability", as ey claims, a marker of difference from a specific group of people (the abled); rather, it marks deviation from an expected set of capabilities. If a person sprains eir ankle, and I say that ey are "disabled" as a result, I'm not comparing that person to a group of people but rather to emself in a previous state.

Anyhow, this post turned out to be much longer than I originally anticipated, so I'm going to leave it there for the time being. I may pick this up at a later date, because amandaw has at least one other post to which I'd like to respond.


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