Since becoming a disability studies minor, my conceptions of disability have radically evolved. There is, of course, the legal definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” In many ways, this definition does provide substantial value. Chronic migraines—for example— can obstruct concentration and focus while dispensing generalized pain, meaning that major life activities like sleep, work, or relationships can be impeded. However, the nature of disability is closer to a theoretical framework than a legal definition. This framework centers the spectrum of needs and interdependence as a fundamental fact of life. All people have needs, and all people are reliant upon one another to have those needs met. People exist at different points along this spectrum of interdependence, and where they are located changes with time — often most profoundly at the beginning and end stages of life. Independence, even for the most able-bodied adult, is a myth; all of our bodies and minds rely upon structures, institutions, and people to meet our needs. Disability is most prominent when those supports fail. This is why disability theorists often reject the medical model— which believes that disability is an individual defect meant to be cured— and say that while impairment may exist within an individual, disability is located and constructed in society (hence the name, the social model). I find this framework easiest to envision through the following thought exercise I was taught: Imagine you are walking to your class on the fifth floor. When you enter the building, you find that something unusual has happened. There are no stairs. No elevators. No ramps. No way to get to the fifth floor at all. However, a few of your classmates have wings and simply fly to class, either through the central atrium or the window. You, however, are stuck. Your impairment is that you cannot fly. The disability, however, is that this structure offers no way to get to your classroom. This is the central paradigm of disability theory, that every human being has accessibility needs, some of which are normalized and others are stigmatized. While this rings true for intellectual, mental, and physical disabilities, from wheelchair users who require ramps to autistic students who require muted sensory learning environments, there are concrete harms surrounding disability that are perpetrated by both systems of ableism and the nature of the impairment. Disability is not only a condition or a systemic failure, but also an action done by someone to someone else. Children with learning disabilities are disabled by governmental failures to provide lead-free water. Prisoners experiencing PTSD and increased mental illness are disabled by a penal system that perpetuates violence upon its inmates. Disability is often a choice imposed by some sector of society onto another, which is why racial justice, environmental justice, and disability justice are all connected. Furthermore, there are real health hazards imposed on disabled people, from both systemic ableism and the nature of their impairments. Theorists debate how much of this harm, like quality of life reduction, decline in life expectancy, etc., can be attributed to ableism versus impairment, but regardless there are widespread costs to the act of disabling.
So, what is disability? It’s an impairment that inhibits life functions. It’s a framework. It is a truth of life. It is the quintessential human condition. It is a spectrum of interdependence that changes with time. It is a failure of systems to meet the needs of certain body-minds. It is the refusal to treat some accessibility needs as equal to others. It is the culmination of societal decision-making involving allocation of resources. It is an action imposed by some of society onto another. Disability is complicated and difficult to define. But so are all things that matter.