Disability & Impairment Research Paper Starter

Disability & Impairment

(Research Starters)

Although the term disability sounds somewhat clinical, during the early twenty-first century its significance in everyday experience has become an area of politicization. Disability has shifted from being considered in terms of biophysical limitation and a medical problem to being the product of interactions between individuals and their surroundings, and as such, has engendered a new paradigm of focused social and cultural research. Research on disability tends to be influenced by two main approaches. On the one hand, disability studies draw on accounts of the experience and politics of disability and productively use the analytical tools of social geography and sociology to examine and explain the social oppression of disabled people. On the other, cultural studies draw on theories about the social construction and production of the human body to examine how 'damaged bodies' become the site of power (Williams, 1999). These two broad approaches are beginning to converge in research that argues for analysis of not only how disability is a social and cultural product but also of how the experiences of those who are considered disabled affect their everyday lives. Consequently, many disability researchers, who are also activists, argue that disability research must begin with the voices of those who are disabled.

Keywords Biomedical Model of Disability; Biophysical Norms; Disability; Dramaturgical Model; Eugenics; Impairment; Social Categorization; Social Model of Disability

Day to Day Social Interaction: Disability

Overview

Although the term disability sounds somewhat clinical, during the early twenty-first century its significance in everyday experience has become an area of politicization. Disability has shifted from being considered in terms of biophysical limitation and a medical problem to being the product of interactions between individuals and their surroundings, and as such, has engendered a new paradigm of focused social and cultural research. Research on disability tends to be influenced by two main approaches. On the one hand, disability studies draw on accounts of the experience and politics of disability and productively use the analytical tools of social geography and sociology to examine and explain the social oppression of disabled people. On the other, cultural studies draw on theories about the social construction and production of the human body to examine how 'damaged bodies' become the site of power (Williams, 1999). These two broad approaches are beginning to converge in research that argues for analysis of not only how disability is a social and cultural product but also of how the experiences of those who are considered disabled impact on their everyday lives. Consequently, many disability researchers, who are also activists, argue that disability research must begin with the voices of those who are disabled.

Social Categorization

What is a normal body and normal bodily performance? This is, in part, the question that implicitly informs Erving Goffman's dramaturgical model of interaction, introduced in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1971), which explores what makes it possible to enter into and participate in social encounters. The dramaturgical model emphasizes that in social encounters, people give, receive, and manage information, most of which is non-verbal and directed toward performances. Performances are possible through roles that operate as organized frameworks that allow people to make sense of encounters. People (or actors) seek to maximize or minimize the visibility of bodily and facial information depending on the impressions they seek to present. Successful encounters require managing visual and expressive information—such as gestures, facial expressions, and other physical cues like clothing, hairstyle, and jewelry—and acquiring control over the human body (or doing body work). For the symbolic interactionist, the body and the face literally 'speak' according to assumptions about what is acceptable for bodies to do in public spaces and to expectations about what bodies should do. Therefore, as long as we present ourselves in correspondence with what is expected of us, we can expect a degree of predictability and stability in social encounters.

Bodily Betrayals

However, we are not always able to control the rhythms and functions of the body, especially when there is an element of physical impairment that has the potential to jeopardize the dependability of our bodies. "Discontinuities of social interaction" (Williams & Bendelow, 1998, p. 59) occur through bodily betrayals (such as belching, farting, dribbling, incontinence) that have the potential to undermine the integrity of social encounters by damaging self and social identity. They do so because they draw attention to bodily difference and to categorizations of normal and deviant.

Goffman argues that societies develop physical, or corporeal, attributes considered ordinary or normal for members of particular social categories. Such attributes develop historically via requirements for economic productivity (Paterson & Hughes, 2000) and via the array of stylized images in consumer culture that reproduce ideas about aesthetic normality. For instance, consumer culture bombards us with images of celebrities who are paraded as the embodiment of physical perfection. Indeed, though we may take for granted the norms associated with how bodies physically work and function, these norms are a product of specific social and historical circumstances and processes, in particular, the development of scientific medicine.

The Historical Development of Biophysical Norms

Biophysical norms associated, for instance, with height, weight, movement, gestures, and physical capacity to be economically productive, are a fundamental part of the assumptions we make about the physical appearance and capacities of people. Historical analysis suggests that such norms developed through industrialization processes, which had the effect of displacing people with physical limitations from spaces associated with economic production. While pre-industrial, agrarian economic spaces did not preclude people with bodily impairments from economic participation, industrial times created confined spaces for economic production (factories, mines, shipyards) that privileged or demanded specific physical abilities and characteristics (such as the ability to use mechanized equipment, which required repetitive, regimented, standardized ,and routine movements). As a consequence, certain groups became less useful for capitalism—the sick, the mad, the impaired—and were effectively segregated in another kind of confined social space, such as the workhouse and the asylum (Gleeson, 1999). A consequence of this environmental segregation was the increasing social invisibility of people with bodily impairment. Even though such groups could be seen in nineteenth century cities hawking goods or begging, they were viewed as deviant, dissident bodies (Gleeson, 1999) that were a topic of visual intrigue and display.

The physical requirements for economic productivity and the assumptions of normalcy on which they were increasingly based were shored up by biomedical and scientific discourses. The development of clinical medicine was itself dependent on access to and examination of the human body. It grew rapidly from the eighteenth century as the number of hospitals expanded and provided a new kind of space in which people were gathered and who were available for examination and inspection (Turner, 1987). The opportunity to examine bodies provided medical practitioners with material that was interpreted, measured and assessed in ways that built up a basis for making statistical comparisons between bodies (Nettleton, 1992). Observations of and comparisons between bodies helped to establish biophysical averages and norms, such as developmental/age-linked height and weight (Armstrong, 1995). We are probably all familiar with statements that draw attention to norms such as 'isn't he tall for his age?' or 'what a big girl she is.’ When we make these kinds of statements, we measure what we see against an implicit assumption about the appropriate height associated with a particular age and thereby both draw on and reinforce prevailing biophysical norms. These norms reinforce a distinction between normal and deviant bodies, which in turn depends on a view of the human body as a self-evident object (Seymour, 1998).

Further Insights

The Biomedical Model of Disability

The body, as defined within the biomedical model, is viewed as a relatively stable, predictable, objective entity. It is seen as a complex biochemical machine that can be fixed by medical intervention (Freund & McGuire, 1999) and that has a relatively well defined natural history and clear boundaries between normal and abnormal (or deviant). Consequently, biophysical difference, or impairment, within this model is viewed as a deviation from the benchmark of the idealized, healthy body, and is itself viewed as disability; that is, loss of the ability to walk through spinal cord damage is what makes a person disabled and not, for instance, that the built environment is designed for people who are able to walk. Indeed, biomedical discourses of...

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