Disability as a Social Construct: Legislative Roots

By Claire H. Liachowitz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Disability and Injury: Workmen's Compensation

After looking at the ways in which a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt and several theories of social behavior are related to the construction of disability, this chapter will focus on the disabling effects of workmen's compensation laws. 1 Specifying how these laws have led to the devaluation of people with physical handicaps bolsters the general argument that the disabling process in America is marked by a continuing interaction between society's laws and its prevailing attitudes.

We will see that a substantial part of the disability attendant upon compensation laws is related to their growth out of an earlier legal tradition. Their common law roots shaped laws that imposed extraordinary medical and legal constraints upon injured workers, and by creating for those workers an inferior social status, disabled them.

Two additional sets of disabling effects can be traced to the medical paradigm that is basic to workmen's compensation legislation. Its incorporation into law was probably the major source of the ideas that disability is an intra-individual attribute and that an equation exists between disability and injury. Furthermore, the paradigm seems to have led, indirectly but inexorably, to society's continuing disdain of those who are not gainfully employed.

By showing that these negative perceptions extended from injured workers to almost all handicapped people, this and the following chapter give the support of legislative history to Bogdan and Biklen's definition of "handicapism":

a set of assumptions and practices that promote the differential and unequal treatment of people because of apparent or assumed physical, mental, or behavioral differences.2

-45-

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