Our understanding of disability impacts upon our strategic thinking and ability to implement sustainable proactive responses. Outdated concepts of disability create and or reinforce misconceptions and bias which in turn limits thinking and leads to poor laws, policies and programmes.
The World Health Organisation (W.H.O) state that “Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.
“Disability is not just a health problem. It 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. Disability happens at the points of interaction between a person and society. The result of those mismatched interactions may be physical, cognitive, and/or social exclusion. The W.H.O description can be distilled to a simple equation of, Disabilities = impairments + barriers.
Based upon this more nuanced understanding of disability we recognize that disability is context dependent. In other words, ‘persons with disabilities’ are ordinary people living with impairments who can be enabled and empowered to be fully participating and equal members of the community through inclusively designed ‘barrier free’ environments.
What ‘disables’ a person with an impairment is not their impairment, rather the context or ‘features of the society.’
As highlighted by international inclusive design specialist Kat Holmes in ‘Mismatch | How Inclusion Shapes Design’, “For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly.” And, “If design is the source of mismatches and exclusion, can it also be the remedy? Yes. But it takes work. … “There are many challenges that stand in the way of inclusion, the sneakiest of which are sympathy and pity. Treating inclusion as a benevolent mission increases the separation between people."
Features of the society referenced in the W.H.O description is not limited to physical and/or environmental barriers such as stairs. Other ‘features’ include attitudinal and/or societal barriers (such as stigma and bias) as well as and policy and/or systemic barriers. In particular, attitudinal barriers (real and perceived) lead to prejudice by others and fear and inhibition in the individual. Attitudinal barriers limit our thinking and lead to poor decisions and actions. Barriers in any form exclude and disable. Just as the barriers have been ‘designed in’ as a result of poor decision making, and implementation so can they be ‘designed out.’
Disability is diverse and dynamic:
It may be permanent or temporary.
It may have existed from birth or may have been acquired due to an injury or illness or as part of the ageing process.
It is often invisible, sometimes episodic, while for others, it may be stable.
It increases with age, from an average of 1 in 5 in the Australians population, to 1 in 3 by the age of 55, 1 in 2 at the retirement age of 67 and finally and finally 1 in 1 by the age of 80 - 85.
1 in 5 people in any year experience mental illness or 45 per cent of the population over their lifetime.