It is not so long since anyone with a disability was frequently either shunned as a product of evil displayed in a freak show or locked away in a mental asylum.
Humans have a propensity to belong to a group - family, social circle, workplace, mutual interest group. Anyone who does not fit in may be rejected - perhaps because of a fear of the unknown or a lack of understanding.
What constitutes a disability?
Any restriction or inability (resulting from an impairment) to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
This leads to debate as to what is normal - what the average man, woman or child would expect to be able to do within the society in question. It is on arguments such as this that court cases are built. Expectations in a modern western society will not be the same as a traditional desert or rainforest tribe. The effect may also be indirect eg inadequate education as a result of an impairment may limit future activities.
Other definitions and classifications are to be found amongst people with disabilities themselves, the medical and legal professions and the world of competition such as the Special Olympics and the Paralympic Games.
Any loss or abnormality of a psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.
This encompasses both permanent and temporary conditions, also those that are congenital, developmental or acquired. An impairment may not be immediately obvious to others. A person may have just one or a variety of impairments. Psychological impairment is probably the hardest to measure and assess.
Not all impairments are linked to disability. The social context will, to a degree, determine whether the label of disability is appropriate or not. Within a deaf community where signing is the norm, it is the hearing, non-signing person who will be disadvantaged. In an academic environment the mathematical gifted autistic person may function successfully, but struggle in general society.
Effect of Society on Disability
There are various considerations in this respect. The more sophisticated a society, often the more impact it has on anyone with a disability. Society creates problems as well as having the resources to alleviate those problems. There is also the matter of how a society cares for those less able to care for themselves.
Aristotle has often been quoted as saying you can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. In his last speech on November 1st 1977 U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey remarked:
...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
This standard remains true, although the terminology would be changed to that acceptable today. It also encompasses caring for all people, disabled or not, according to their need.
We must remember though that help does not necessarily mean doing things for others. What is often more important is enabling them to be independent.
On an individual basis, help should be offered when you think it may be required but be prepared that the offer might be declined. Also, allow the person accepting help to specify the nature of any assistance required.
Someone who is disfigured or has obvious physical abnormalities is more likely to be stared at or shunned in a society that values and strives for an ideal in appearance. Sadly, humans do seem to have a perception that they are not perfect, but should strive for this state. This is fuelled by the media who promote individuals to a higher, manufactured state of ‘perfection’, called celebrity. Hence the demand for plastic surgery, extreme dieting and so on. Sometimes the very desire for perfection becomes a psychological problem.
Religion can play a part in how disability is perceived - in some cases a disability may be considered the work of demons or the result of the person's misdeeds.
The needs of society and how the people co-operate is important, whether everyone is valued for whatever contribution they can make, or rejected as useless if they cannot achieve the same results as the majority.
Can someone with a disability access both the essentials and expected luxuries in life as well as everyone else? This includes physically, socially and financially.
Both the legal framework and consultation with user groups and disability experts has gone some way to improving the situation in areas such as integration in mainstream teaching, wheelchair access to buildings and easily visible signage. The very complexity of modern society has made this necessary compared with simple living in a small locality; the variety of problems that may be encountered is immense and the needs of each person with a disability can vary.
Although necessary assistance may be available, for many people it is a battle of form filling, intrusive assessments and challenging authorities to achieve this.
People with a disability are as diverse as any group of people, they have their own personalities and abilities, individual joys and sadness, aspirations and fears, achievements and disappointments, disputes and reconciliations.
Society tries to impose certain values on its members. This can be particularly important in the matter of medical ethics where individual choice is important. For instance, medical advances mean that parents with a genetic disorder in some cases can now select a non-affected embryo. We have to consider that some parents may wish to have a child with the same disability as themselves.
There can be issues around medical treatment - the right to refuse treatment as well as the question of access to treatments that may be expensive or innovative and not available under the NHS. Debates have taken place about euthanasia, currently illegal in the UK. This highly controversial topic includes the right to choose euthanasia as well as the need for protection for those who might feel under pressure to make this choice.
The human race has come a long way in terms of knowledge and technology but in some respects, little has changed in terms of our basic functioning and interaction. All human beings have more in common than any or all of their differences – if this is ever universally recognised and acted upon, the human race might have a more peaceful and productive future.