• April 6th, 2020

Working definitions of disability


Grönvik, in his work on definition of disability in the social sciences displays a photograph of a body, with the person’s head and face cut off, in a wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of stairs, and then proceeds to explain that the photography could be seen to reflect no less than five conceptions of disability. (L. Grönvik Methodological Perspectives, 2007 11-12)

First, the everyday conception is that the person is disabled because he or she is in a wheelchair and cannot walk up the stairs.  This is a functional definition.  The second possibility is to conceive of disability as a result of the interaction between a person with impairment and his or her environment namely, that the person in the wheelchair cannot get up the stairs. 
This is a relative or environmental definition of disability.

The third possible definition is that the stairs are the reason why the person is disabled, with no reference at all to the person in the wheelchair.  Social barriers prevent people with impairments from participating in society, and these barriers are the only causes of disability.  The definition is often referred to as ‘the social model of disability.’  One may also see that the person is in a wheelchair and, therefore, has access to a mobility aid, for which he or she may have had to apply.  As a result, he or she, must have met some administrative definition of disability.  This is the fourth definition.  The fifth definition may arise if someone looking at the picture were to ask whether, even if other people or administration systems regard the person as disabled, the person regards himself or herself as disabled.  This would be a subjective definition of disability.

Grönvik points out that the complexity of what we mean by disability does not end with these five potential conceptions.  The intersections of disability and various other identity markers such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation and nationality, mean that regardless of the definition of disability one uses, people’s experiences of disability will vary.  Laws and policies, therefore, have to be sensitive to these lived experiences as influenced by complex intersecting personal, environmental and social variables.  The complexity also compels us to clarify why we are interested in disability in specific instances – the focus may be on people’s bodies, the built environment, bureaucratic systems, social movements or a combination of these.

Within international rights bodies, such as the UN and within many domestic systems worldwide, including that of South  Africa and Namibia, it has been recognised that there has been a shift from functional definitions of disability that focus on the individual to relative or environment definitions that regard disability as the result of interactions between a person said to have an impairment and his or her environment.  The United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), for example, seems to endorse the latter definition.

Furthermore the Government of the Republic of Namibia has ratified the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2004 and endorsed the African Decade Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities in 2005.  

We are aware that the varied resources required for transformation are limited, however the implementation of the rights of persons with disabilities call for an integrated and inclusive action to accelerate transformation and redress for persons with disability.  Disability mainstreaming will only be achieved through integrated and inclusive planning, and budgeting aimed at empowering persons with disabilities.

*Reverend Jan. A. Scholtz is the //Kharas Regional Chairperson and !Nami#nus Constituency Regional Councillor. This article is written in his personal capacity. 


Staff Reporter
2020-03-13 10:36:34 | 24 days ago

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