All Resources

Perception of Disability


Introduction to perceptions of disability

The perceptions and attitudes around people with disabilities has developed and evolved over time, reflecting changes in society and leading to legislative changes. As society generally moved from viewing disability as a moral wrong to understanding disability as a social construction, we see that the attitudes and misperceptions of the larger society, as well as individuals, have a profound impact on people with disabilities.


Perceptions of Disability

Moral View: Disability means God is displeased

  • Predominant in the 1700̥s-early 1800̥s, this model was based on a religious belief that if you were physically or mentally different, you were morally flawed in the eyes of God. Often these individuals were institutionalized, usually in warehouse like environments with no care or treatment.

Medical View: Disability must be cured

  • In the mid-1800̥s view shifted to the Medical Model: disability became viewed more as the result of a genetic defect and as a medical condition that needed to be treated and cured. Unfortunately, this model still focused on what was "wrong" with the person with a disability.
  • Freak Show: Around this time, more people with disabilities started to join circuses and freak shows. While they were able to form a community in this setting, these shows also exploited their disability and differences.
  • Eugenics Movement: Perhaps the most horrific period for people with disabilities, after World War I the eugenicist movement spread across the US. Eugenicists believed in keeping the breeding "stock" of America "pure" and passed laws to prevent people with disabilities from marrying or having children. Often people who were deemed "genetically unfit" were subjected to unnecessary surgeries and forced sterilizations.

Functional limitations & rehabilitation model

  • During WWI, many returning veterans came home with disabilities, making it difficult to view people with disabilities as being "polluting the human gene pool." This lead to the Rehabilitation Movement, which aimed to help veterans with disabilities return to society and a normal work life, though people with life-long disabilities were not included in these efforts as quickly. 
  • Objects of Charity: During this time, society̥s views of people with disabilities started to shift from pure tragedy and pity to admiration for their "courage" and "ability to overcome" their disability. People with disabilities were displayed throughout society and media as "poster children" and objects of charity. 

Civil rights/minority model

  • During the 1960̥s people with disabilities began to see themselves as a minority group and to disagree with the idea that they needed to be "fixed." Instead, they asked that people and environments adapt to meet their needs.  This was the start of the Independent Living Movement, which was based on the idea that people with disabilities have the right to live where they want to, contribute to society, and ultimately, know their needs and abilities better than people without disabilities.

Social construction model

  • This model takes on a more current philosophy that physical and attitudinal barriers are the real disabilities. Within this model, society has a responsibility to address barriers that prevent the participation of people with disabilities. The focus shifts from fixing individuals to eliminating socially constructed barriers (meaning everything from prejudice to physical access barriers).



Would you like more information about the services we provide? Ask our technical assistance specialists.

Contact Us

Northeast ADA Center: 1-607-255-6686

ADA National Network: 1-800-949-4232

Email Us: