Content » Vol 49, Issue 7

Special report

Being a person with disabilities or experiencing disability: Two perspectives on the social response to disability

Jerome Bickenbach, Sara Rubinelli, Gerold Stucki
Swiss Paraplegic Reseach, Guido A. Zäch Institute, 6207 Nottwil, Switzerland
DOI: 10.2340/16501977-2251


Disability has a profound impact, both on those who live with it and on society that responds to the needs of people experiencing disability. Society has a primary obligation to respond to the impact of disability. Rehabilitation has an essential role to play here; but its relationship to disability embodies a broader social ambiguity about what it means to experience disability. On the one hand, disability is a mark of a minority group persons with disabilities, which has, historically, been socially disadvantaged. On the other, disability is a matter of how health conditions and associated impairments interact with the physical and social world to create limits on what people can do or become. However, just as health problems are universal over the life course, so too is disability. Everyone experiences disability. This paper explores the historical underpinnings of these two perspectives on disability, in particular how they impact on rehabilitation practice and policy. After surveying the social consequences of these perspectives, the paper attempts to reconcile them in order to enhance the overall effectiveness and relevance of the social response to disability.

Lay Abstract

Disability has long been a controversial notion, even though everyone agrees that society has an obligation to provide for the needs of persons with disabilities, including rehabilitation services. Yet, historically, there have been two very different ways of understanding who is a ‘person with a disability’. There is first of all a very political, and advocacy oriented approach, coming mostly from the United States, in which people with disabilities are a minority group, historically socially disadvantaged, like African-Americans, women and LGBT individuals. Disability has also be widely understood, even by people who adopt the ‘minority group’ approach, as a universal feature of human beings: what happens when health conditions and impairments, in particular environments, make it difficult for people to go to work, school or participate in social activities. Here we look at the historical roots for both ‘disabilities’ and explore ways to reconcile the two perspectives.


Do you want to comment on this paper? The comments will show up here and if appropriate the comments will also separately be forwarded to the authors. You need to login/create an account to comment on articles. Click here to login/create an account.