Disability as a Social Construct: Legislative Roots

By Claire H. Liachowitz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Introduction

Until recently, most writers on the social aspects of physical handicap have adhered to the orthodox medical view of disability as the direct result of personal physical disorder. Now, in contrast, an increasing number of sociological and psychological theorists regard disability as a complex of constraints that the ablebodied population imposes on the behavior of physically impaired people.

This book looks at these limitations of function from a somewhat different perspective -- not as the consequences of interpersonal relationships, but as the products of public, collective actions. Without a conception of disability as a social construct,1 explanations of the results of modern "disability legislation" are incomplete. What is not accounted for is the fact that laws that deal with handicapped people reflect not only the political problems posed by conflicting interest groups, but also the views that biological deficiency confers social deficiency and that handicapped people deserve (perhaps desire) a place outside of the mainstream of society. Furthermore, useful legislative evaluations need to take into account the processes by which people who deviate from accepted physical norms are devaluated and segregated and, as a result, disabled.

The growth of these ideas is demonstrated here by analyzing laws and public documents that were developed prior to the early twentieth century. These early records suggest that the cultural practice of translating physical abnormality into social inferiority is so deeply rooted as to have had an almost certain impact on both the formulation and implementation of later public policy. Of course one cannot proclaim with certainty that values institutionalized over time have continued to shape subsequent public actions. However, the historical analysis so strongly supports such a relationship that it seems vital to consider this fact in the analysis of later legislation, and to apply it as a source of information for the formulation of new "enabling" legislation.

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