Toolkit: Disability 101 - What Does It Mean to Be Disabled?


Disability 101:

What is disability? Are all disabilities obvious & do disabilities change over time? Is disability part of “diversity”? What is “self-care,” and how do I take care of myself when I have to work/study/socialize/function?

What does it mean to be disabled?

Rather than responding to what disability means or looks like, it might be useful to consider what “non-disabled” (aka “able-bodied”) means, and, historically, how these distinctions were made:  

In the 21st century, dominate culture (through media, language, film, literature, art, public policy, medicine, and more) would have us believe that “normal” or “typical” or “average” bodies are representative of our lived experiences. Historically, we find the roots of classifying bodies (as in the “average body”) in 18th-19th century United States (and elsewhere) in the emerging fields medicine and statistics, for example. Retrospectively, some of the practices of these disciplines are characterized as “scientific racism”: they helped secure chattel slavery and the enslavement of blacks in the US through “blood quantum” (one drop of black blood equaled “blackness,” and, therefore, a lack of humanity justifying enslavement) and the pseudo-science of measuring skulls (phrenology) to deduce intellect and, even, one’s humanity. At the same time, many of these principles laid the ground work for categorizing all bodies, creating a taxonomy of diseases and defects based upon a newly created “norm.” It is this “norming” that led to the rise of eugenics in the US (and, later, Germany).

in the early 19th century. If you can imagine, before the 18th century, disability was more “naturalized” than today; this is to say that physical, intellectual, and emotional variations among populations were expected. Nevertheless, disabled people were dehumanized and mistreated in ways that persist today. None of the aforementioned is to say that medical research and practice should be vilified; rather, if we want to understand “ability” or “disability” we must understand the historical context of the disciplines, industries, and power structures that co-created our contemporary understanding of a false narrative we like to call, “normal.”

If to be “normal” circa 1850 was to have a place on a bell curve designed by a mostly white power establishment, than to be “normal” today is to live this history with the added complexities of a culture preoccupied by unrealistic expectations around “health” and “fitness” (and beauty) that aren’t accessible to the masses.   


In short, as human beings we live on a continuum of lived experience. For many of us, we experience the world in ways that are inconsistent with cultural, political, and economic systems rooted in outmoded notions “normalcy” that are over 150 years old. For others, being characterized as mostly “non-disabled” is more fitting. And, it seems, if we all live long enough, eventually we all become disabled.


With this fraught history in mind, being disabled or non-disabled takes on additional cultural nuance across other identity categories like race, class, gender, sexuality, and immigration status. For example, it’s no surprise that to be disabled in an economically disadvantage community puts the individual at greater risk (on many levels) than, say, in an affluent community; after all, access to healthcare is more readily available to the latter group. Moreover, with the former group in mind, if high crime is present with an attendant law enforcement contingency that is woefully undertrained and underfunded, mentally ill people are particularly vulnerable—especially people of color. Historically, blackness and madness went hand-in-hand during Jim Crow as yet another tool of oppression to keep blacks from paid industrial labor and create occupancy in the rising asylum industry. In other words, to be characterized as “disabled” or “mad” was a “disabling mechanism” wielded by the white supremacist, Jim Crow state. It’s no wonder this legacy remains pervasive in contemporary disability stigma in black communities.

Similarly, the characterization of women as “mad” was (is) one of many tools to secure patriarchy and subjugate women. Queer and/or gender non-conforming people have had (and continue to) their identities diagnosed as “illnesses” to be cured, sometimes violently (lobotomy, is one example). (This very brief discussion on overlapping identity categories is not intended to be exhaustive.) With diversity in mind, it’s worth remembering that disability is the one identity category that coalesces with all others. And, if our universities are claiming diversity and a commitment to legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s formative work on “intersectionality” (loosely put, the ways in which identity categories are often mutually constitutive—co-created and, even, dependent), then disability access (built environment, resources, activism, organizations, representation, and more) and disability scholarship must be a part of that commitment too.  


This is where we would put the activity intro and instructions.

Thank you for completing this lesson. Feel free to continue on with our Disability 101 Toolkit or return to the community room for other resources.

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