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What exactly does the word "disability" mean, and what causes the state of being disabled? In this article, we take a radical look at an approach that, though officially recognized, society still has to catch up to.

"Disability" — it may sound like a pretty straightforward word, if you're looking in from the outside, yet it is loaded with political, social, and practical connotations. What is a disability, really, who gets to define that, and how does that affect how people live their lives? Here, we explore both the word and how people have interpreted it.

How Governments Define Disability

Many people think of immediately visible physical impairments when they hear the word "dsaibility". Reality is a little more complicated. In order to see what "qualifies" a person for the disabled label, let's take a look at what the law in three different countries says, as well as exploring the World Health Organization's take on what a disability is. In addition to providing some insight into what society considers a disability, legal definitions of the word are important when it comes to determining which individuals have the right to access government services provided for disabled people.

The US Federal government defines a disabled person as "any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment".

According to Australian law, disability is attributed to an "intellectual, psychiatric, cognitive, neurological, sensory or physical impairment or a combination of those impairments", is permanent or likely to be permanent, and results in a "substantially reduced capacity of the person for communication, social interaction, learning or mobility and a need for continuing support services".

In the UK, meanwhile, disabled people are defined as those that have a physical or mental impairment that negatively impacts their day to day activities substantially and over a long period of time. "Long-term" is defined as 12 months or more, while "substantial" leaves some space for interpretation, but it refers to being at a signifcant disadvantage compared to people without disabilities. 

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, talks about disability as an umbrella term "covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions". It acknowledges that disability is a "complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives".

The central theme within all these definitions is that disability is something that makes a person's life harder. Why, though? 

Is the fact that being disabled can lead to problems in mobility (try navigating most cities in a wheelhair), communication with others (as with deaf people), and social status something that originates from the person's disability, or from the society in which they live?

This is where people disagree. The idea that a disability is something that originates within an affected person's body essentially makes their limitation their problem. It makes the disability something to be fixed through medical treatment or adaptations, things that are not always possible by any means. The idea that being disabled is a status resulting from a society poorly adapted to the needs of affected people is an entirely different approach. Within this approach, disability isn't the sole responsibility of the disabled person and their healthcare providers. Rather, it's society that should enable people with disabilities to experience fewer limitations. On the next page, we'll discuss this concept — the social model of disability vs the medical model — in more detail.

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