Context Matters: Disability As Environmental Rather Than Personal Attribute

I have recently shifted my perspective on what it means to have a disability. Whereas I used to see a disability as a personal attribute, I have begun looking at it more as an attribute of the environment or context in which some given person is wanting to achieve some outcome.

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In the same way that we can shift between seeing the jar half-full or half-empty, we can shift from seeing a disability as a personal attribute to an attribute of the environment. Image Credit: Pixabay

I’m pretty sure this is just the same sort of figure-ground perspective-shift at work in the old glass-half-empty-half-full illustration of pessimism versus optimism. And although in a strictly objective sense it really shouldn’t matter which perspective on disability one adopts, the fact is that we humans only rarely function so objectively, and I suspect each perspective will tend to impose a radically different sort of subjective framing effect on the kinds of choices one makes in order to solve the problem of a given disability.

[Note: Please forgive me if I’m reinventing the wheel here. I’m still quite new to all of this, and no doubt at risk of explaining to you something that you already understand better than I do. If that turns out to be the case, I hope you will excuse my armchair-philosopher ignoramusplaining and help me to enrich and elaborate my new perspective by sharing your own knowledge and experience with me in the comments below.]

In any case, the basic idea here is that in order to be functional, any given ability requires particular environmental configurations or situational properties — that is, a highly specific context suitable to performing the ability in question. When performed outside such a suitable context, really any ability is effectively disabled, which is to say that it becomes a disability. For example, have you ever realized that it’s virtually impossible to smell anything when you breathe out? Or consider that even a gold-medal Olympic sprinting champion trying to run chest-deep in a swimming pool would surely lose a race to a child who is running alongside on the ground. And finally, of course, nobody sings well with a mouth full of cheeseburger. In each of these examples, the given ability — smelling, sprinting, singing — is shown to be highly dependent on certain kinds of environmental attributes — inhaling, dry ground, empty mouth, respectively.

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Because my ability to read is so heavily dependent on certain specific environmental attributes (the position of my glasses relative to my eyes, the available light, which language the book is written in, etc.) we can quite sensibly view my reading ability or disability as an attribute of the environment, rather than an attribute of me. Image Credit: Pixabay

But we can also reason like this in the other direction, beginning with the sort of conditions that have been traditionally viewed as disabilities. For example, when I take off my prescription eyeglasses, I abruptly lose my ability to read. Or when removed from her wheelchair, a woman paralyzed from the waist down loses her ability to roll. And when a toothless man removes his dentures, he can no longer chew solid food. In these kinds of examples the eyeglasses, the wheelchair and the dentures are all environmental attributes which enable the respective abilities of reading, rolling and chewing. Although we most commonly frame reading, rolling, and chewing problems in terms of poor vision, paralyzed legs, and missing teeth — all attributes of the person having the difficulty — we can equivalently frame these difficulties as being caused by a lack of eyeglasses, wheelchairs or dentures, respectively, which are all attributes of the environment.

To summarize: whether we see something as an ability or a disability heavily depends on environmental attributes. With the right environmental attributes, it becomes an ability, and with the wrong ones, it’s a disability.

And why is this important? Well, without pretending to pronounce the last word on the subject, I think one principle advantage to this shift from seeing disabilities as personal attributes to environmental ones derives directly from the fact that environments are much easier to change than are the kinds of personal attributes that are usually seen as disabilities.  People who are blind, deaf, paralyzed, autistic, etc. tend to stay that way permanently. If these people are to have any hope of participating fully and consistently in their own lives, then they simply must not take their disabilities so personally, and should rather shift their focus to the environments in which they live — toward finding and/or building environments that enhance their abilities rather than disable them.


Image Credit (amputee soccer): Pixabay

3 Comments

  1. My favorite uncle, who was a double amputee (thank you SO much, Vietnam War. /s) definitely saw his disability as a “Hold my beer” kind of thing. As in “You don’t think I can do that just because I don’t have legs? Hold my beer and watch this shit right here, y’all.” He really taught me that disability is more about your state of mind that what you actually can or can’t do. If you WANT to do something, you should never let your disability (whatever that is) stand in your way. He never did. He re-learned to do things he’d done before (like shoot pool at almost an expert level which is hard AF when you’re at eye level almost with the damn table) and taught himself new skills (like doing fancy tricks while strapped to a boogie board being dragged behind a speed boat) just to see if he could do it. He had his issues sure…he drank far too much, smoked too much and slept around WAY too much. But he was also a wonderful uncle and mentor (he coached a youth wheelchair basketball team and I even dated, briefly, one of his players).

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