Models of Disability
The following analysis will contextualize the language, imagery, and structure of the Disability March website in light of past work on representations of disability. Much of this literature begins with an understanding of models that have dominated discussions of disability. First, there is the medical model, which suggests that disability is an individual problem situated within the bodies of sick and disabled people. According to this model, medical interventions provide an answer to disability, with the ultimate goal being renewed health and the complete eradication of particular conditions through scientific advances. The medical model ultimately suggests that the disabled body is inherently inferior to healthy bodies and, thus, in need of correction (Frank, 1995). Scholars ranging from Michel Foucault (1965) to Pamela Block, Devva Kasnitz, Akemi Nishida, and Nick Pollard (2016) have noted how the medicalization of disability has served to exclude disabled people from mainstream society—either physically through asylums or more subtly through diagnostic labels.
Reacting to the medical narrative about disability, other scholars and disability rights advocates have contended that it is cultural and societal structures—not misfitting bodies—that create limitations for people with disabilities (Garland-Thomson, 1997). Activists have called out structural decisions from the lack of curb cuts in sidewalks to the lack of accessible textbooks in classrooms as systematic choices made by society to the detriment of people with disabilities (Shakespeare, 2010; Thomas, 2004).
More recently, scholars have observed that social models of disability are useful but fail to account for a range of experiences from the exclusions encountered by people with invisible disabilities to prejudice perpetrated against the elderly on the basis of ableist ideas and values. In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Alison Kafer (2013) argued for a political/relational model that understands impairment and disability as social constructs that are used to include or exclude, empower or disempower. Kafer further criticized the trend toward depoliticizing disability, noting that this trend leaves unexamined the discourses that have shaped "disability" and "ability" as categories. Along similar lines, Aimi Hamraie (2017) wrote, "Paradoxically, depoliticized and neutralized approaches to disability make it possible to imagine a world without disability in it" (p. 13). Hamraie went on to interrogate assumptions about "productivity" and "usefulness" that remained largely unexamined in early disability rights advocacy. She and many others pointed to the need for greater attention to intersectionality in future disability studies work. As Mia Mingus (2011) noted, "Disability is not monolithic. Ableism plays out very differently for wheelchair users, deaf people or people who have mental, psychiatric and cognitive disabilities. None of these are mutually exclusive, and are all complicated by race, class, gender, immigration, sexuality, welfare status, incarceration, age and geographic location."
Working in the context of these models of disability, this webtext draws on three distinct sets of literature: research on linguistic representations of disability, research on visual representations of disability, and research related to the affordances and limitations of social justice work organized online.
Accessibility Highlight Video: Navigation Menu (Transcript)