Disability is a form of human diversity. As such, disability must be included in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) work.
The accordions below provide insight on various aspects of disability education. While this information is not all-encompassing, it provides a framework through which DEIA work can be done.
Definition of Disability
The Americas with Disabilities Act defines disability as, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment.” Examples of common disabilities include anxiety, diabetes, D/deaf, OCD, ADHD, Autism, POTS, EDS, Muscular Dystrophy, and more.
Outside the legal definition, disability can be understood as a neutral form of human diversity. Disability is often fluid, meaning related impacts and experiences can change throughout someone’s life. For many people, disability is an important aspect of their identity, connecting them to a larger disability community and culture. Often, people with disabilities can hold multiple marginalized identities, meaning every person’s experience as a disabled person is different.
Apparent and Non-Apparent Disabilities
Sometimes referred to as "visible" and "invisible" disabilities, these terms refer to the fact that sometimes it is readily apparent to an observer that a person is disabled, while sometimes it is not. We offer these categories as they provide a helpful framework for understanding disability. As described below, these categories are not fixed; a person's disability may move across these groupings.
Some folks prefer the terms "apparent" and "non-apparent" because not all apparent disabilities are visible. Additionally, disabilities that have been labeled as "invisible" such as anxiety, depression, etc. may become visible when someone is experiencing heightened impacts like a panic attack. By using labels such as "apparent" and "non-apparent," there is more room for understanding disability as a fluid experience that ebbs and flows. It is important to remember that some disabilities can be apparent at times and non-apparent at others. The "visibility" of a disability does not indicate its impact.
Many physical, neurological and speech-related disabilities are apparent to the casual observer. These are disabilities that are easily recognizable, often because the person uses assistive technology or equipment. Mobility aids, white canes, hearing aids and speech generating devices are examples of such technology. Other examples of apparent disabilities may include speech or language impacts.
Many mental health, neurological, learning and chronic health-related disabilities are non-apparent to the casual observer. People with these disabilities often experience additional ableism for several reasons including not being believed about their disability, or having their disability impacts written off as personal failings (laziness, disorganization, lack of drive).
Some examples of non-apparent disabilities include autism spectrum disorder, depression, diabetes, and learning and thinking differences such as ADHD and dyslexia. Non-apparent disabilities can also include symptoms such as chronic pain, fatigue, and dizziness. Check out a recent YouTube video to learn more about MSU student’s experiences.
Models of Disabilities
Disability studies, an interdisciplinary field of scholarship, offers the "models of disability" framework. These models help identify and track how disability is understood in various aspects of life. The models briefly described below do not encompass every disability model but provide an introduction.
We have split the models into two categories, deficit and anti-deficit. Deficit models of disability understand disability as inherently negative and are often focused on "fixing" or "curing" disability. They also individualize disability as a personal fault, that disabled people should be working to change or overcome. Anti-deficit models understand disability as a neutral experience. These models focus on the inaccessible aspects of society and the built environment instead of stigmatizing the disabled individual and place the onus on all of us to work together to create an accessible world for all. These models allow for disability to be understood as an identity and a form of human diversity.
Medical: The most common model of disability, it understands disability as a solely medical category, often focused on cure. Generally, this model does not allow disabled people to have autonomy over their bodies due to the value placed on cure, regardless of whether this is a value shared by the person with the disability.
Tragedy: Understands disabled people as in need of pity, prayer, or help.
Supercrip: Understands disability as something in need of overcoming. This can lead to non-disabled people objectifying disabled people's achievements as inspirational.
Social: Understands disability as something that is created through the environment, politics, and interpersonal relationships. Focused on fixing barriers, not disabled people. This model recognizes disability as neutral and a form of human diversity.
Interactional: Mixes both the medical and social model. Understands the importance of medicine in some disabled people's lives, but does not recognize disability as a personal fault. This model values the choice to include medicine in one's life, without assuming medical intervention/cure is necessary.
The language we use to discuss disability is constantly changing as the disability community further connects and defines their experiences. This page is not meant to serve as a "do's and don't" list, but an exploration of the values behind the language we use and the values it communicates.
Disability Is Not A Bad Word
Recently, the disability community has also called attention to the practice of using disability evasive language such as: differently-abled, dis-ability, handicapable, etc. While this language may seem well intentioned, it instead demonstrates a negative understanding of disability and places an emphasis on ability. As the models of disability page discussed, disability is neutral and a form of human diversity.
When we stray away from saying disability, it can communicate that we recognize disability as something that is bad or tragic. Further, an emphasis on ability suggests that people’s value is determined by what they can produce/do and that disability should only be understood as something to overcome and not embraced as identity.
Identity-First and Person-First Language
Overall, we recommend using the language that a person prefers. If you don’t know, ask! You can use identity first and person first language interchangeably if you are not sure or are speaking more generally.
An example of identity-first language would be referring to someone as an “autistic person” or “disabled person.”
An example of person-first language would be referring to someone as a “person using a wheelchair” or “person with diabetes.”