Disability as a Social Construct: Legislative Roots

By Claire H. Liachowitz | Go to book overview

PREFACE

At the time that Benjamin Franklin was chosen to represent Pennsylvania in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was almost immobilized by gouty arthritis, and Philadelphia's officials arranged to have him carried into the sessions in a sedan chair.1 His physically defective body thus did not impede his ability to function as a statesman; although the impairment that prevented his walking remained, he was not disabled.

Franklin's experience illustrates the distinction between a handicap imposed by nature and a handicap imposed by society. This book expands on that distinction to show the ways that socially imposed handicaps have been constructed. The historical analysis that is used indicates that much of the inability to function that characterizes physically impaired people is an outcome of political and social decisions rather than medical limitations. The purpose of the present book is not to prescribe policy, although inquiry into the nature of disability clearly establishes a foundation for the kind of public policy that is not disabling -- or better, that is "enabling."

The frequently debated question whether "disabled" or "handicapped" better describes people with limited bodily functions appears to me to represent little more than an issue of semantics so long as one of these terms refers to the functional limitations imposed by social environments. Completely arbitrarily, therefore, I have used the term "handicap" to indicate physical impairment and "disability" to indicate a diminished ability to function socially.

Literally, the words "physically handicapped" can describe persons with various forms of perceptual disorders or intellectual deficiencies. The term is also applied to persons with defective vision or hearing or with medical problems that are imperceptible to others. The conventional usage of "physically handicapped" of course refers to people with visible neuromuscular or orthopedic abnormalities. Throughout, I have used that customary definition, although some quotations focus on mental retardation

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