People with disabilities are also people with abilities and exclusively focusing on limitations simply perpetuates exclusion and the notion of inadequacy which merely fosters disadvantage and dependency.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way let’s look at why I think this.
The idea of disability is socially constructed and context-dependent. This is to say disability is identified by the presence of some characteristic which means that an individual is unable to function in the same way as everyone else in any given domain. This is a relatively arbitrary judgement and means that different circumstances would result in a different classification of ability and disability. If disability refers to functional impairment than all humans are disabled to the extent that they cannot breathe under water (a simplistic and poor example I know but illustrative all the same). Because everyone differs to some extent on innumerable physical and psychological dimensions, all people will be disabled given a particular set of circumstances and therefore, it is the combination of personal characteristics and a particular set of circumstances which disables a person, not the presence of one factor alone. Therefore, being blind doesn’t make you disabled, living in a society where sight is necessary for daily functioning does. This might seem like picking at hairs but it is an important distinction to make because it shifts the focus away from the individual and the notion of a disabled person to a disabling society – this shift is in many ways empowering and assists to foster capacity rather than dependency. Ultimately, the classification of ‘disabled’ is a qualitative, narrow, and personal judgement which is heavily value-laden. It implies among other things inadequacy and in some cases personal responsibility on the part of the individual.
So who is responsible for disability? There are multiple culprits. A society is constructed in a way that its members can live and function in work, family, socially, economically etc. However, because of the natural variation in people’s physical and psychological capacities, it will be the majority (or at least those with the most power) that will have the greatest functional capacity or to put it another way, the circumstances will suit most people but generally will not always suit everyone. Those who, because of a combination of personal characteristics (like poor vision) and contextual details (20/20 vision requirements to drive) have a diminished capacity to function will become ‘disabled’.
Furthermore, a more balanced approach to the idea of disability would also focus on the abilities of people. The strengths and capacities of an individual in almost any case outweigh their limitations. As I mentioned people differ on innumerable physical (size, strength, speed, height, etc) and psychological (kind, pliable, resilient, hardy, extroverted, etc) dimensions and given the right set of circumstances these characteristics might disable them to some extent. But people are made up of countless combinations of these dimensions and depending on the circumstances, a person can be high functioning in one domain (like IQ or kindness or physical fitness) and low functioning on another (sight, mobility, or extroversion). Once again it is the presence of particular circumstances which disables. For example, an individual who is introverted might be disabled in a high-pressure sales career. So therefore, the notion of disability is dependent on circumstances (context) and is determined and defined by a given group of people (socially constructed). But now I am just repeating myself…
What I wanted to emphasise is the effect a particular focus can have on a person and society. For example, to focus on a person’s particular feature which given particular circumstances reduces their functioning in a given domain is not only partial but defeating. This often results in the person and their family experiencing a sense of inadequacy, isolation, guilt, fear (to name just a few), and therefore compounds the disadvantage they face. This further limits their full economic participation which impacts society as a whole. When society, families, and individuals focus on abilities it empowers, opens up opportunities, and allows individuals to work towards achieving and functioning in a society on their own terms. This is not going to make a blind person see any better or help a paraplegic person walk any better but it might help them see themselves in a new light. A light in which they can contribute to society, where they have the power to be agents of social change, and a light in which a new identity can be formed which emphasises their unique strengths, abilities, complexities, personalities, and contributions.
Just some thoughts; I really should get back to work and stop procrastinating