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Written by Fabrizio Acanfora

Things are not always as they appear at first sight; sometimes, instinct can lead us astray. Often, the solution to a question is counterintuitive; that is, it is not what common sense or the simple logic of our reasoning guided by often imprecise stereotypes would suggest.

An often misunderstood concept is that of disability, which is generally understood as a physical, sensory or mental attribute of the person, placing on the disabled person the responsibility for what is perceived by society as a lack of ability in certain areas. On the other hand, we say ‘physical disability’ or ‘cognitive disability’ to indicate the area on which it affects, so it is easy to fall into error. Disability is a condition, a state in which some people find themselves at a particular moment in their life and depends on the interaction of various factors. To be clear, having one leg instead of two is not a disability in itself, nor is an IQ of 50. Disability occurs when people with these characteristics find themselves interacting with a society that is organized for those who have 2 legs or have an IQ that falls within the average of 100, a society that, therefore, disables those who do not meet the criteria for admission to the category of the majority.

This consideration is critical because, just as the concept of diversity is the natural state within which we create discrete categories (including normality), the idea of disability is something general that, likely, will concern everyone sooner or later.

Let us consider the idea of ability, to which dis-ability is contrasted in the widespread but limiting comparative vision of human experience: the state of exception is not so much the disability that sooner or later, in all likelihood, we will all experience; what is highly fragile and certainly temporary is precisely that condition that we insist on defining as ability.

According to the dictionary, disability is the: “Condition of those who present long-lasting physical, mental, intellectual or sensorial impairments which, in interaction with barriers of a different nature, can hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” This definition vaguely collects the most common models used to describe this condition, namely the medical, the social and the most recent, the biopsychosocial models of disability.

According to the medical model, disability is a physical or mental characteristic of the person. It is seen as a deficit that must be eliminated to bring the individual back to a state of normality, when possible, also through medical or specialist interventions.

The social model instead, developed within the UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation) in England in the 1970s, was clearly defined for the first time in a 1983 book[1], in which the author explains how disability is the result of the interaction between a person with specific characteristics (that are defined as impairments) and a society structured by and for people considered able, and which therefore is not able to offer the same opportunities and the same rights to all its members.

The third model, defined as the biopsychosocial one, is the one currently used by the WHO and tells us that disability is given by the interaction of the two previous models, i.e., between the health of the person (medical model) and the environment (social model).

Depending on the model used to define disability, we access a completely different language and way of thinking. The medical model is essentially categorical; that is, it tries to place differences in well-defined groups, it focuses on those characteristics interpreted as deficits and tends to pathologize the person by defining them precisely based on these deficits. According to sociologist Colin Barnes, “As impairments are presented as the root cause of disability, logic dictates that they must be eradicated, minimized or ‘cured.’ But where ‘cures’ are ineffective, which more often than not is the case, people labeled ‘disabled’ are viewed as economically and socially inadequate and in need of ‘care.’[2]

Therefore, by attributing disability to the person and not to the obstacles they encounter daily, we will always see them as defective. Far from refusing the medical approach, what I would like to suggest is to contextualize its use. The issue is closely linked to language, particularly common language, the one we use daily to interact with each other. If we allow (as we are doing) the medical lexicon to encroach on everyday life, we relegate people with disabilities to live and identify exclusively with what is perceived as defects, implying, among other things, that they are unhealthy.

The categorical vision has undeniable advantages when it is necessary to understand how to treat certain conditions from a clinical point of view. Still, outside this context, it is minimal. The reality, however, is highly complex and must consider each person’s uniqueness, their relationships with the surrounding world and how they perceive themselves and their identity. Let’s think, for example, of how disability is considered in educational institutions, where the clinical aspect is mainly considered. Inclusion focuses on reducing those barriers that disable people and prevent them from having the same opportunities as others. What deviates from this vision is hardly considered, such as aspects linked to the emotionality and affectivity of disabled persons, their doubts and difficulties that go beyond a specific context of intervention, not to mention those disabilities considered invisible at first sight, such as learning disabilities, which are addressed from an educational point of view, leaving the person entirely alone in the management of their social and individual life outside of the clinical aspects of their condition.

Disability must be freed from a vision that considers it exclusively from a functional point of view, recognizing its own social identity within the diversity of human expression. This step cannot be achieved if we do not first purify common language from the pathologizing terminology that labels any person with psychophysical and sensorial characteristics different from the average as defective.

Black book cover with a equal sign crossed with a red slant: In altre parole. Dizionario minimo di diversità, effequ, March 24, 2021This article is from the chapter: Disability

Acanfora, Fabrizio. “Disability.” In altre parole. Dizionario minimo di diversità, effequ, March 24, 2021. Italian Edition.



[1] M. Oliver, Social Work with Disabled People, Macmillan, Basingstoke 1983.

[2] Barnes, Colin, “Understanding the social model of disability”, in Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies ed. Nick Watson and Simo Vehmas (Abingdon: Routledge, 29 Oct 2019), accessed 27 Nov 2023, Routledge Handbooks Online.