What is a disability? There are many different definitions. In business and government. disability is often defined in terms of work-for instance, “an inability
to engage in gainful employment.” Medical professionals tend to define: it in terms of organically based impairments-the problem being entirely within the body (Albrecht. 1992). However, not all disabilities are Visible to others or necessarily limit people physically. Dls”belly den to II reduced ability to perform task sanne would normally do at a given stage of life and that may result in stigmatization or discrimination against the aerosol with sabbaticals. In other words, the notion of disability Is based not only on physical conditions but also on social attitudes and the social and physical environments in which people live. In an elevator, for example. the buttons may be beyond the reach of persons using a wheelchair. In this context, disability derives from the fact that certain things have been made inaccessible to some people. According to disability rights advocates, disability must be thought uf in terms of how society causes or contributes to the problem-not in terms of what is “wrong” with the person with a disability. An estimated 49.7 million persons in the United States have one or more physical or mental disabilities. This numb e r continues to increase for several reasons, First, with advances in medical technology. many people who once would have died from an accident or illness now survive. although with an impairment. Second. as more people live longer. they arc more likely to experience diseases (such as arthritis)
that may have disabling consequences. Third. persons born with serious disabilities arc more likely to survive infancy because 01′ medical technology. However, less
than 15 percent of persons with a disability today were born with it; accidents. disease. and war account for most disabilities in this country. Although anyone can become disabled, some people are more likely to be or to become disabled than
others. African Americans have higher rates of disability than whites. especially more serious disabilities; persons with lower incomes also have higher rates of
disability (W~itz, 2004). However, “disability knows no socioeconomic boundaries. You can become disabled .
your mother’s poor nutrition or from falling off your polo puny,” says Patrisha Wright. a spokesperson for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
(qtd. in Shapiro. 1993: 10). For persons with chronic illness and disability, life
expectancy may take on a different meaning. Knowing that they will likely not live out the full life expectancy for persons in their age cohort, they may come to
“treasure each moment,” as did James Keller. a former baseball coach: In December 1992. I found out I have Lou Gehrig’sdisease-catastrophic lateral sclerosis. or ALS. I
learned that this disease destroys every muscle in the body. that there’s no known cure or treatment and that the average life expectancy (or people with ALS is two to five years after diagnosis. Those arc hard facts to accept, Evcn today. nearly two years af!er my diagnosis, I see myself as a 42- year-old career athlete who has always been blessed with excellent health. Though not an hour goes by in which I don’t see or hear in my mind that phrase “two 10 five years.” I still can’t quite believe it. Maybe my resistance to those words is exactly what gives rnc the strength to live with them and the will to make the best of every day in every way. (Keller. 1994) .
As Keller’s comments illustrat e, disease and disability are intricately linked. Environment. lifestyle, and working conditions may all contribute to either temporary or chronic disability. For example. air pollution in automobile-dogged cities leads to a higher incidence of chronic respiratory disease and lung damage, which may result in severe disability for some people. Eating certain types of food and smoking cigarettes increase the risk (or coronary and cardiovascular diseases (Albrecht. 1992). In contemporary industrial societies. workers in the second tier of
the labor market (primarily recent immigrants. white women. and people of color) are at the greatest risk lor certain health hazards and disabilities. Employees in
data processing and service-oriented jobs may also be affected by work-related disabilities, The extensive use or computers has been shown to harm some workers’
vision; to produce joint problems such as arthritis.Iowback pain. and carpal tunnel syndrome; and to place employees under high levels of stress that may result in neuroses and other mental health problems (Albrecht. 1992). As shown in • Table 18.104.22.168 percent of the people in the United States (more than one in five) have
a “chronic health condition which, given the physical, attitudinal, and financial harriers built into the social system, makes itdifficult to perform one or more activities generally considered appropriate for persons of their age’ (Weitz, 2(04).
Can a person in a wheelchair have equal access to education, employment, and housing? If public transportation is not accessible to those in wheelchairs, the answer is certainly no. As disability rights activist Mark Johnson put it, “Black people fought for the right to ride- in rhe front of the: bus. We’re fighting for the right to get on the bus’ (qtd. in Shapiro, 1993: 128). Many disability rights advocates argue that persons with a disability have been kept out of the mainstream
of society. They have: been denied equal opportunities in intoxication by being consigned to special education classes or special schools. For example, people who grow up deaf arc often viewed as disabled; however, many members of the deaf community instead view themselves as a “linguistic minority” that is part of a unique culture (Lane, 1992; Cohen, 1994). They believe that they have been restncted from entry into schools and the work force not due to their own limitations, but by societal barriers. . Living with disabilities is a long-term process. For infants born with certain types of congenital (present t birth) problems, their disability first acquires social significance lor their parents and caregivers. In a study of children with disabilities in Israel, the sociologist Meira Weiss (1994) challenged the assumption that parents automatically bond with infants, especially those born with visible disabilities. She found that an infant’s appearance may determine how parents will view the child. Parents arc more likely to be bothered by external, openly visible disabilities than by internal or disguised ones; some parents are more willing to consent to or even demand the death of an “appearance-impaired” child (Weiss, 1994). According to Weiss, children born with internal (concealed) disabilities are at least initially more acceptable to parents because they do not violate the parents’ perceived body images of their children. Weiss’s study provides insight into the social significance that people attach to congenital disabilities. Among persons who acquire disabilities through disease or accidents later in life, the social significance of their disability can be seen in how they initially respond to their symptoms and diagnosis, how they view the immediate situation and their future, and how the illness and disability affect their lives. When confronted with a disability,· most people adopt one of two strategies avoidance or vigilance. Those who use the avoidance: strategy deny their condition in order to maintain hopeful images of the future and elude depression; lot example, some individuals refuse to participate in rehabilitation following a traumatic injury because they want to pretend that the disability does not exist, By contrast, those using the vigilance strategy actively seek knowledge and treatment so that they can respond appropriately to the changes in their bodies (Weitz, 2004).