Perceptions of Disability and the ADA

The way society views disability has a big impact on our laws surrounding disability, as well as on our day-to-day lives. Let’s look at where we’ve been—and at where we’re going.

Moral View

Predominant in the 1700s through the early 1800s, this way of thinking about disability was based on a religious belief that if you were physically or mentally different, you were morally flawed in the eyes of God. During this time, people with disabilities were often institutionalized, usually in warehouse-like environments with limited care or treatment.

Medical View

In the mid-1800s, many viewpoints shifted to a medical model. Disability was seen 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.

Around this time, more people with disabilities started to join circuses and freak shows. While they were able to form communities in these settings, these shows also exploited their disability and differences.

A horrific period for people with disabilities in the United States was after World War I. At this time, the eugenicist movement spread across the United States. Eugenicists 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.

Rehabilitation View

Many veterans of World War I came home with disabilities, making it difficult to view people with disabilities as having genetic defects. This led to the Rehabilitation Movement, which aimed to help veterans with disabilities return to society and a normal work life. People with lifelong disabilities were not included in these efforts as quickly as veterans. 

During this time, views about people with disabilities started to shift from pity to admiration for their perceived courage and ability to overcome. People with disabilities were portrayed as poster children and objects of charity.

Civil Rights View

During the 1960s, people with disabilities began to express 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 and to contribute to society, and that—ultimately—they know their needs and abilities better than people without disabilities.

Social Construction View

The social construction view is a more current philosophy. It looks at physical and attitudinal barriers as the real disabilities. Within this view, 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. This means doing away with everything from prejudice to physical barriers.

Identity View

Like the social construction view, the identity view recognizes that people with disabilities have been discriminated against by society and continue to face prejudice. Unlike the social construction view, the identity view specifically affirms disability as a positive identity. The identity view also recognizes the benefits to people with disabilities of interacting with other people with similar experiences of disability. The sense of acceptance and belonging that can come from this interaction can influence how a person relates to and engages in their community.

This view is also associated with the use of identity-first language rather than person-first language. In other words, a person may prefer to refer to themselves as a “disabled person” rather than “a person with a disability.” Use of identity-first language affirms disability as an important part of the person’s identity.

Thinking about Perceptions of Disability

All these different views have had a strong impact on our laws and communities, and on the lives of people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) takes a strong civil rights view, but many of its related regulations help us to see disability as a social construction.


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