Many theories have been advanced to explain disability with many of them revolving around biomedical origins. However, sociologists have developed quite a different school of thought. According to sociologists, disability, which can be physical, cognitive, emotional, mental or developmental, is an impairment that can largely be linked to historiography, social construction as well as social organization.
Historiography seeks to explain disability by applying two concepts: materialism and feudalism. Materialists argue that disability is a social experience, which arises from the specific ways in which society organizes its fundamental activities i.e. work, transport, leisure, education and domestic life. According to Gleeson (1999), disabled people’s social experiences cannot be understood merely through resort to ‘personal histories’, or even through ideological or symbolic systems, but rather ‘be located in a framework which takes account of their life histories’, material circumstances, and the meaning their disability has for them (p. 38). Therefore, according to the concept of historiography, disability is defined as a form of oppression that any society might produce through the social constitution of its natural bases including human bodies. Materialists foreground the mode of production (i.e. classical antiquity, Feudalism and capitalism) as an historically evolving ensemble of political-economic and cultural relations that has structured the social understanding and experience of impairment. The other aspect that has been incorporated in the concept is capitalism. Under capitalism, historians argue that impairment has been socialized as a specific form of social oppression-disability, which contrasts with other forms of injustice and exploitation based upon class, gender, race and sexuality.
Social construction can be defined as a practice or custom that characterizes a particular society or community or group of people. It examines how social phenomena develop and advance in social settings. According to Steadward, Wheeler & Watkinson (2003), impairment and disability cannot be defined purely on the basis of biomedical terms. This is because social arrangements, patterns and expectations substantially affect impairment and disability. A very thin line, if any, lies between the biological origin and social origin of disability. Both perspectives interact to create disability. Social arrangements can worsen or improve a biological condition more or less than any other situation. Social conditions affect our bodies by either creating or failing to stop illness, sickness or injury. Disability is to a high degree caused by social crimes such as invasions, civil wars as well as terrorism which give rise to disability not only via direct injury but also via the spread of illnesses and the deprivation of basic social needs such as water, clothing, food and shelter. There is the danger of reducing the entire experience of disability to macro social phenomena such as economy, culture, policy systems or institutional practices. Shakespeare (1998) asserts that in shifting of explanation from a naturalist conception of human deficiencies to the everyday construction of social life, we must not abandon the body and neglect the critical fact it plays as a foundational role in the constitution of human society (p. 56). Each body provides a unique set of pathological capabilities and limitations that informs the social experience of the individual.
In sociology, social organization refers to the pattern and nature of relationships between and among people, individuals and groups in a society or community (Shakespeare, 1998). It entails the manner in which people in a given society interact in terms of the nature of their kinship structures, division of roles and responsibilities and generally how they handle social practices such as leadership and marriage, among others. The manner in which the structures of a society are organized has a strong correlation with disability. Some practices that characterize the norms and customs of a particular community make significant contributions as far as disability is concerned. In some societies, for instance especially in Africa, wife buttering is a common practice that is believed to instill discipline in a woman. In extreme cases, women are left with life time disabilities. Such a norm that stems from the social organization of a community causes disability and hence disability has an aspect that originates from social organization. Slavery also leads to some form of disability especially in cases where the master uses extreme measure to gain the loyalty of the slave.
The social construction concept can be applied in understanding the disabilities that stem from phenomenon such as civil wars. Additionally disabilities that are as a result of the deprivation of the crucial healthcare amenities such as polio related disability can be best understood by applying the social construction concept. Social organization best explains the disability that result from the extreme cases of exercising one’s authority in a given social setting such as cases of wife battering and forced labor. Historiography employs materialism and feudalism in defining disability.
Gleeson, B. (1999). Geographies of Disability. Florence, KY: Routledge.
Shakespeare, T. (1998). Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives. London: Continuum International Publishing.
Steadward, R.D., Wheeler, G.D. & Watkinson, E.J. (2003). Adapted physical Activity. Alberta: The University of Alberta Press.