Disability and Impairment; What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

During my first day at Sense I began to question exactly what we mean by ‘disability’. The people I was working with varied massively in the type, complexity and manifestation of their disability.


I decided to research official definitions, and came across the 2010 Equality Act. According to this document, disability is


“A physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”


I investigated some of the terms used. ‘long-term’ refers to an impairment of 12 or more months, with on-and-off impairments not being classed as a disability. ‘Substantial’ is defined as “more than minor or trivial”. However, the word I found most difficult and potentially problematic was not defined in the document. That word was ‘normal’.


In the essay ‘Normality, Power and Culture’ by Lennard J. Davis, Davis chooses to focus “not so much on the construction of disability as on the construction of normality”. He claims that the problem is the way normalcy is constructed to create “the problem of the disabled person”, describing this as the “social process of disabling”.


Davis believes that “it is possible to date the coming into consciousness in English an idea of ‘the norm’ over the period 1840-60”, a time of industrialisation. He says that before this, the idea of the ‘ideal’ body stood in place of the ‘normal’ body. The ‘ideal’ body was a body so perfect that only divine beings could hope to achieve it, and for the mere mortals on earth there was no pressure to have the ideal body as it was considered unachievable.


This all changed when statistics introduced the concept of the normal. Quetelet, a pioneering statistician, states that;


“An individual who epitomized in himself, at a given time, all the qualities of the average man, would respect at once all the greatness, beauty and goodness of that being”


In my mind, an alarming thought.

The culture of the time not only began to desire normal-ness in all aspects of their lives, but those who didn’t achieve this were considered as having “ugliness in body as well as vice in morals and a state of sickness with regard to constitution”. This sentiment from Quetelet ignited what Davis sees as “The association between what we would now call disability and criminal activity, mental incompetence, sexual license and so on established a legacy that people with disabilities are still having trouble living down”. Ableist thought still sees disabled people as a “defective class”.


I’m not entirely sure I agree with Davis that the idea of normal came into being no earlier than the 19th centenary. What were the witch trials if not a way to persecute outliers of the norm? Shakespeare documents racism in ‘Othello’ that is blatantly stigmatising someone who is not of ‘normal’ colour. However, I am very sympathetic to his ideas that disabled people are not disabled by their impairment, but by society’s treatment of it.


Aaron Williamson is an artist who, it is recorded, “assumes the fact of his deafness as a form of knowledge”. This would suggest that he does not see his deafness as a disability in and of itself. In a conversation between him and Sinead O’Donnell, Williamson states, “the category we think is right at the bottom in comparison to all the others is made up of the people who are known as ‘disabled’ people”. He goes on to describe disability as “a collective idea”, an identity that belongs to many people with different impairments. This is certainly what I have witnessed at Sense.


His view is that “disability actually means that you’re disabled by society through exclusion”, and that the term ‘disabled’ is different to ‘impairment’ which refers to whatever an individual has that causes them to be disabled. He returns to the idea of normality, saying that as a disabled person you feel oppressed and can ‘long to be normal’.


In the documentary ‘Born to be Different’, the lives of several children with disabilities are documented from birth. The comments both from the children and their parents seem to support the idea that society disables, not impairments. The father of Nathan, a boy with downs Syndrome, explains that at Nathan’s school “they see him as different and until that attitude changes, we’re gonna [sic] be exactly where we are now”. Nathan’s mother, who originally wanted Nathan to attend a mainstream school, says, ”If other kids don’t have, you know, contact with other kids with disabilities then they’re never going to learn. Inclusion is the best thing for Nathan I think. Society really disables people”.


So, how do these ideas influence my practice and my desire to be inclusive? There are many more avenues to explore, such as the ethics around medical intervention such as cochlear implants and reconstructive surgery, mainstream and specialist schools and the design of our public spaces and buildings around able-bodied people. However, I found the most compelling message I came across in the film ‘Talk’, commissioned by the Disability Standards Committee. In the film, we see a world were the roles are reversed and able-bodied people are stigmatised for their lack of impairment. We see workplaces, clubs and public transport that take impairments as their norms with fully accessible lifts, ramps and bars. It was a beautiful thing. I feel that in my practice an awareness that my response to people’s impairments is potentially the source of more upset than whether I know sign or realise someone is partially sighted is scary, but reassuring. If my attitude is what needs to be monitored mindfully, I am willing to do that. Then all I need to do is make every building, venue and classroom I ever work in totally accessible and impairment friendly


We’ll see how that goes.


4 thoughts on “Disability and Impairment; What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

  1. Really interesting blog Bel. The idea of the ‘body normative’ is very interesting, how we view ability in relation to intellect is even more challenging and your relating this to a social/historic construct is spot on.

    1. Thank you! I learnt so much writing this essay, although I’s only planned to do a brief overview putting my posts into context. I’m interested into whether an ableist society categorizes different disabilities – I think people often find someone with a learning disability more uncomfortable to interact with that someone with a physical disability, but this is something I will need to research properly

  2. A really interesting area here Bel. Why is this?- I think you are correct in this observation. Why don’t you interview some people about this idea, its important and uncomfortable. Perhaps email Back to Back and also Janice Parker and see if they will participate in a converstaion about this with you.

    1. Interviewing is a good idea, I’ve got some contacts who work with people with both physical and learning disabilities. Caroline Bowditch is someone I’d also like to chat to this about. Let’s get the conversation going!

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