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The Concept of Disability, or, 'perceiving our differences'

Brie Stark's picture

The Concept of Disability

Or, perceiving our differences 


Disability is a cultural construct based on an “ideal,” or “social norm” that has been constructed from assumptions of authority in society.  This authority has derived from the fact that each person believes others to be comparable to their own self-identity, in that there should be a common mold that all types of people precisely fit.  These expectations, however, have failed to take into account the fact that every human being perceives the world from a different view—both biologically, through their retinas, and socially, through their expectations, beliefs and behaviors.  It becomes necessary to focus upon each individual as a self-defining entity, whose abilities derive from examining their own self-worth without any outside judgment.  The term disability is a construct that can possibly be phased out through cultural change, a process that would involve using a historical perspective to realize the depth of already-occurred change and the diversity that each brain exudes. 

Brains can be extremely complex. The human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons, linked with up to 10,000 synaptic connections each.  If one were to calculate the number of combinations of these connections and neurons, the possibility of brain reorganization for each individual becomes unfathomable.  The diversity of the human brain “depends critically on the existence of differences in the elements which make [it] up” (3).  Thus, “diversity is fundamental to successful biological organization for two reasons: a profound mutual interdependence of variants in the here and now, and an even more profound dependence on variants to meet the challenges of the future. Together, these two characteristics make absolute nonsense of any argument which claims that human beings can be biologically ranked one against another” (3). 

All human experience is a function of the brain.  “There is, in the retina of each eye, a hole where the optic nerve leaves the back of the eyeball to go to the brain.  The upshot is that when one looks at the world, there is a small part of it which one doesn’t actually see, the part at which the piece of the retina with a hole in it is looking” (4).  Therefore, what one sees/perceives when one looks at any point in the world is not merely genetic information.  It is not information about that place which is coming in on one’s optic nerve (there isn't any) (4).  When one perceives, for example, an optic illusion, one has the ability to see a plethora of images.  That optic illusion, however, is merely a pattern of light and dark.

By drawing on this concept, it is accordingly plausible that what the person to my right is seeing greatly differs from what I am seeing, either because our retinas are not receiving the same stimuli or because what I am interpreting from the stimulus has a founding acquired from my own beliefs and expectations.  All human experience is thus a function of the brain and the experiences, expectations and beliefs of each individual brain.

The problem therein lies with an innate question that each human being ponders when they perceive the world.  From what standpoint ‘should’ this experience, that they currently perceive, be interpreted?  We feel this ‘should’ compulsion because society has perpetuated a principle of a “social norm,” or an “ideal,” whereas diversity of behavior is compared to an inherent “baseline desirable condition” (5). 

“In the medical model as well as from a variety of other perspectives, there exist presumptions of “ideal” states against which current states can be measured,” (5).  These states, however, are rarely applicable to more than one individual because of the brain’s complexity and architecture, as aforementioned.  Therefore, each individual is consequently judged on just how much one deviates from this social norm—the medical model having completely disregarded the fact that very few conform even closely to such an ideal.      

Disability is therefore conceived by people who feel an authority over another individual that must be exploited.  Each person is engaged in their own self-definition, thus preconceiving the notion that other people must be comparable to their own self-identity.  While it does not seem to be a problem that behaviors deviate from others in a society—for don’t we all strive to find that inkling of individuality amongst the masses?—it becomes a problem when culture accentuates the difference as being liable for usage as degradation (6).  This degradation manifests in the form of the label ‘disabled,’ whose connotation is more-often-than-not a negative one.

This well-defined “norm” seems to classify society as a mass of similarities, pegging diversity (and subsequently disability) as a harmful deviation from the ideal.  This harmful deviation thus leads to a necessity, by those who feel the aforesaid authority, to therapeutically alter or rehabilitate certain individuals whose brains and behavior fall outside the accepted domain.

The medical model retains the “idea that discomfort and pain should be “fixed”” (1) in order to enhance their lives in society.  This notion not only implicates the superiority of one individual’s diversity to another’s, but also completely disregards the concept of individual self-definition.

Born with drastically diverse brains, we have equally diverse interpretations of what pleases us, or how we behave to best suit our body and how our behavior manifests due to our own brain’s architecture.  Rather than forming a functional plan to rehabilitate all people with a supposed disability, it becomes necessary to put more emphasis on the individual aspect of each person.  If a girl is completely accustomed to taking the steps in a manner that involves a slight hitch-step between steps because of a differently formed leg, one may perceive this behavior as deviating from the social norm and therefore a disability.  However, if not approached or directly prejudiced because of this strange manner, it seems hardly probable that the girl herself would notice any detriment.  That is, she makes it to her destination in the same fashion that she expected to; she would have no preconceived notion of ‘how to climb the stairs correctly.’


It becomes a disability, then, when the deviation becomes noticeable and scorned upon, and when others feel the necessity to ‘fix’ the out of the ordinary hitch-step.  “In this experience of disability the problem only appears when the ‘disabled’ person appears,” (2).

This brings me to the implication of understanding and instigating cultural change: “a change such that cultures refuse to measure people against one another or against some single standard and instead accept the proposition that all individuals have an equal and intrinsic worth but one that is different for each individual…” (5). The absoluteness of “ideals” and “social norms” that we currently harbor are much too absolute.  They fail to penetrate the individual aspect of perception of the world, and fail to distinguish how differing brain architecture manifests equally nonconforming behavior.

In order for cultural change to occur, we must realize some of the absolutes we have created.  The physical environment has been constructed out of the experiences and resultant expectations of the culmination of the entirety of the human race before us.  Therefore, it is quite plausible to say that if one were to ask a human living tens of thousands of years ago to regard our own physical environment, that individual would find this environment unrecognizable—even ludicrous—compared to the environment of the time period.  Thus, hasn’t physical environment changed over time in order to accommodate for the deviations of the brains (and consequently, behaviors) of all those who came before us?  Should we regard this fact with more weight, it seems hardly a problem that the girl takes the stairs with a hitch-step—perhaps it is the problem of the stairs and the absoluteness that we place upon the physical environment.  This hardly seems like a drastic concept—for one should be inclined to notice that, like material entities and species, the physical environment has also evolved and should continue to do so.  This seems to deconstruct the concept of a “norm” notably.

Like physical environment, social norms have been constructed disregarding evolving social lifestyles.  Social barriers have erupted because of a lack of method of establishing all-encompassing laws.  Laws must be absolute, with fine-tuned articles and subsequent revisions until the supreme standard of concreteness has been reached.  Laws, therefore, are another barrier restraining cultural change—for “once these norms [laws, rules of society] are accepted as standards in the social environment, then ‘disabled’ people will be excluded by these standards,” (2).  It is therefore a necessity to breach the absoluteness of preconception and embrace diversity to necessitate cultural change.  One must realize the perpetuity of social evolution.


In conclusion, key observations have provided evidence that disability can be regarded as a cultural conception or construct—and one whose perception can be subsequently altered.  Individuals form “social norms” through an assumption that self-identity should be perpetuated to all members of society without taking into account the immense diversity of the architecture of brains.  Societies have the power to overcome the prejudice of disability, the desire to label because of ‘ease in treatment’ as the medical model would have it, by deconstructing its preconceived notions of absolutes and social “norms.”  The “ideals” that are formed because of culture’s assumptions must be made with more leeway, and people with ‘disabilities’ should be treated according to their individual desires and needs, should they have any.  If a person has a hitch-step and disproportional leg, but has no problem finding a way into a building (just as those who are considered “able-bodied”), it seems that, when cultural change occurs in the aforementioned fashion, the term ‘disability’ loses much significance. 


1.      Bryn Mawr's Working Group on Mental Health, (2004). The Culture of Our Discontent: The Medical Model of Mental Illness. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from Serendip Web site: /local/scisoc/mentalhealth/3dec06.html 

2.      Finkelstein, Vic (1990). Experience and Consciousness. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from University of Leeds Web site: 

3.      Grobstein, Paul (1989). Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from Serendip Web site: /gen_beh/diversity.html 

4.      Grobstein, Paul (1991). Genomes to Dreams. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from Serendip Web site: /gen_beh/Dreams.html 

5.      Grobstein & Cyckowski, (2006). Models of Mental Health. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from Serendip Web site: /sci_cult/mentalhealth/models/mentalhealthmodels4.html#evolution 

6.      McDermott & Varenne, (1995). Culture as a Disability. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from Serendip Web site: /sci_cult/culturedisability.html 


Serendip Visitor's picture

Intelligent observations

Nice to read something that actually sheds light on societal stereotyping and labeling; showing that what may be cool to me may be hot to you and that that either way, its "cool..."

Paul Grobstein's picture

norms and "disabilities"

" it seems hardly a problem that the girl takes the stairs with a hitch-step—perhaps it is the problem of the stairs and the absoluteness that we place upon the physical environment"

And, perhaps, not only cultural expectations/"norms" but also individual ones? Might the girl want to be "fixed" only because she sees others are faster up the stairs?  If we stop using "norms" as the basis for social and individual evaluations, what would we replace them with?