What makes a condition a disability vs just a characteristic?

Given the recent debates that have surfaced in a few different threads re whether conditions such as autism and deafness truly pose enough of an obstacle to functionality and happiness to be considered disabilities, or whether they should be upheld as fundamental and unchangeable aspects of the person’s unique identiy, I feel a separate thread is warranted.

What is a disability anyway? I’m not going to go and post dictionary definitions, I think we are all familiar enough with the term where such a move would be pedantic. But in one of the threads, the argument was made that “disability” was not an objective reality or truth but rather a product of a societal failure to recognize and accomodate the needs of those of us whose needs are divergent from those of the mainstream.

I find this argument laughably, woefully incomplete and ignorant. Society has no culpability in the heartbreaking, impenetrable chasm felt by a parent trying to bond with their (very low-functioning) autistic toddler. Society also has no culpability in the inability of the paraplegic/quadriplegic to control their bowels and bladder. Just as society has no culpability in the inability of a blind man to drive on the interstate. I could go on but the point is to blame society for the objective truths of disabilities is wrong and an extreme overreach.

Society does have a role in mitigation of those objective truths however. To what extent a society does or doesn’t recognize the needs and autonomy of the disabled definitely exacerbates or mitigates those realities but it doesn’t create them. And in the broad scope, big picture, society is moving, and has been moving, further and further in the right direction re recognizing the needs and autonomy of all the various manifestations of disability.

But conditions that pose significant obstacles, both intrinsic and extrinsic in nature, to achieving life goals taken for granted by many who have no such obstacles in their lives, is what all disabilities share. Intrinsic obstacles are inherent limitations imposed by the disability itself, regardless of the nature of the society in which it exists. Extrinsic obstacles are those posed by integration of those intrinsic limitations with a society that is to a varied degree not eqipped for them.

How is lacking one of the basic senses, namely hearing, not considered a disability? I completely understand not considering the disability a “lessening” of the person with it but in addition to the functional impairment of such a condition, look at what an enormous element of human and cultural expression and experience is missed by the deaf by never experiencing music. Or the blind never experiencing visual arts.

I think the idea, often fiercely defended, that certain disabilities arent actually disabilities at all but rather innate aspects of a person’s being that should be celebrated (or at least not considered a liability) is understandable. Understandable but misguided, that is. Misguided because I think it is a response to social marginalization, or extrinsic obstacles, at the expense of addressing the intrinsic limitations that are the source of social response or lack thereof in the first place.

I apologize for the long-winded, rambling nature of this OP. I am stopping now even tho I feel like there is much more to say. I just feel like I am bordering on incoherence, being all over the place as I’ve been. Hopefully I make some semblance of sense, despite my lack of clarity.

Nm dumb lol

Couldn’t it be both? If you have a from birth disability wouldn’t it become ingrained in your character? As in; you are you, your disability is part of you. You know no difference and your peeps know you as such. Of course, it’s not all of you. Mental disability may be all of you more than a physical impairment. If you are born blind you will have a different perspective that a sighted person becoming blind later in life. That’s all I am saying.

Ambivalid one thing I run across is a conflation of the idea of the disability as an obstacle versus the idea of a disability as the a decrease of the value of a person. As if somehow, the proclamation or acceptance of a disability means that an individual is less worthy than other people. I don’t know if this is tied into a religious sub-text that lingers in society - God’s Judgement if you will - or if people just find the language ugly and react to it without thinking about what it means fully.

I, myself, then try to distinguish between disability as a barrier or difficulty, versus disability as a value statement.

Yes, I think this is exactly it. The strong-willed declarations that certain conditions are NOT disabilities stem from this conflation, which is often so socially ingrained that the conflation is made subconsciously. It’s why such themes as a “strong will” are portrayed in our media as all it takes to overcome disabilities like spinal cord injuries. The repercussions of such messages are myriad and insidious.

“Disability” as a value statement seems to be a very common understanding of the term. Since disability means social demotion and lost value, it’s no surprise that the Deaf Community doesn’t see themselves as disabled. Or that society and media pushes the narrative that to overcome/avoid this “lessening of value”, one must exhibit traits that exemplify exceptional social value (perseverance, work ethic, optimism, etc). If you aren’t actually a “lesser being”, then you can overcome your spinal cord injury with hard work. Or show that you function with your deafness just as fully and and independently as anyone else. Etc. The point is, only the sub-standard are “disabled”.

A disability is a difference that leads to signifiant functional handicap within the environment we must function.

So sure, to some degree the solution to something labeled a disability is to change the environment that we must function in to the degree that the difference no longer results in a significant functional handicap with the relevant environment.

I am using the word “handicap” here with intention and in contrast to my first impulse of “impairment.” One may, through great effort, not have any impairment relative to an average typical someone without the difference in question, but clearly that extra great effort represents the handicap the individual has (compared to the relative head start the more typical person has).

But I do think that that is part of where the bit you observe comes from - the idea that with changes in the shared environment and with great effort a person with the difference in question does not need have performance impaired to the more typical, and the desire to promote both of those to the greatest extent possible.

Such non-impaired performance should not however be taken to mean that there is no handicap nor disability. Moreover the greatest extent possible will only go so far.

From A Guide to Disability Rights Laws.

Everybody goes through moments when we find ourselves encountering an obstacle which:

  1. is linked to our physical characteristics (this includes brain structure),
  2. would not occur, or be as large, on a person of certain different characteristics,
  3. does not in any way impact our worth as a human being,
    and 4) is temporary or at least short-lived.

For example, yesterday I was doing some work in my kitchen; for most of it, I either stood on the floor or on a step stool, but at one point I needed to go get the really-tall-ladder. My 5’4" was an obstacle for reaching the spot I needed, one short-lived and which wouldn’t have affected people of greater height such as my 5’10" brothers. Someone much shorter would have needed to use the ladder a lot more; there are situations where they would need some accomodations made (for example, lowering the high knob in those British doors which can only be opened by turning two knobs simultaneously).

To me, a disability is something whose only difference with the first list is that it’s
4’) permanent.

While accomodations can be made (ladders can be made available, high knobs can be lowered), someone who has a disability is living in a world whose default values, objects and procedures do not take them into account; they’re permanent outliers. Depending on the disability and the specific situation, the solution will be different: most wheelchair users wouldn’t have been helped by a ladder, they would have needed someone to “be their hands” for a while. As a society we have the collective duty to make accomodations available, but that requires accepting that there is a need. If someone who would be perceived by others as disabled doesn’t consider himself so, be my guest, but don’t then ask for accomodations.

Sometimes its obvious, sometimes it takes a court appearance to determine.

It depends more on sociological context than most realize. You cannot pin down pat answers to this because of context differences and how complicated it is to define them. (And we should respect some individuals need more help than others to adapt to a limitation.) But it’s obviously going too far to reduce all to a social model of disability.

If I had an undiagnosed communication disability that inhibited me from the ability to cheat, and I lived in a society where cheating was extremely common as means to get by, then what? This is a frustration some people feel.

I got a look at disability from the other side of the fence a couple of years ago. This was when there was a bunch of articles published in various papers and websites about research into “aphantasia” - the lack of ability to see visual imagery in your imagination.

As it happens, I myself don’t see visual imagery in my imagination, and it hadn’t particularly occurred to me that other people actually literally did. And I found the ‘disability discourse’ - the fact that my normal and, to me unexceptional way of thinking was being dissected and spoken of as some sort of lack or handicap - unexpectedly infuriating. So now I have a lot more sympathy for people in, say, the Deaf community, who insist that ‘difference is not disability’. Nobody wants to be pitied. And people are not all that good at figuring out which aspects of a condition are actually the hampering ones, and which are no big deal.

In the case of autism specifically (my son has a diagnosis too) it’s even harder to work out where the disability line ought to be drawn, not only because there’s so much variation between different autistic people, but because some of the autism characteristics are, honest to God, not actual deficits. Hyperfocus, for one. The ability to concentrate on one thing for very long stretches of time might under some circumstances make your life harder - but it’s not the lack of an ability to do something. Under some circumstances, it’s a useful ability. Sensory hypo- or hyper-sensitivity is similar - what’s the ‘right’ amount of sensory sensitivity is quite environment-dependant, and it’s hard to argue that a particular level is ‘right’ - though as you get more extreme, it becomes harder to find an environment that your sensitivity level will work for.

I don’t currently think of the Small Boy as ‘disabled’. He’s worse at some things than most people I know, and better at other things.

On the other hand, many of the kids I used to work with in computer class I would - because not only were they finding it hard to live in this society, it was hard to think of any environment in the actual real world that they would more successfully adapt to than a neurotypical person.

I think that’s the crux of the issue. I don’t consider disabled people “inferior”, and I certainly don’t pity them. Sympathize, yes, but pity? The thought never occurred to me. Everyone has problems. Some people have bigger problems than others, that’s all. You don’t have to let your problems define you - but you also shouldn’t pretend the problems don’t exist.

I think there’s some gray area; taking what Nava said about being short and extending it a little, I come to my own mother, who is 4’11". She does have fairly serious issues getting at things that aren’t under about 6’ above ground. She has stools, grabber-devices, etc… that help her get at stuff in high cabinets.

Nobody in their right mind would call her disabled though; she’s just very short. But where do you draw that line when it comes to say… workplace accommodations? Six inches shorter? Is it a functional definition?

But making it a situation where the mentality is that people are different, not disabled kind of thing, is not really productive either- non-disabled people need to recognize that there are severe functional limitations for some people, and be both cognizant and willing to work with/around those limitations.

I think if it’s just presented as “different”, you end up with people making the assumption that it’s literally just different, like having one blue and one brown eye, or that you’re a pescatarian, instead of recognizing that it’s something that actually limits someone’s ability to function like most other people in some way, and that they need to be more aware of that.

The legal definitions tend to be largely functional, that’s why you can have someone be disabled for certain jobs but not others and why legal systems consider different levels of disability. I had a coworker with some sort of bone condition which made it impossible for him to hold any jobs that needed heavy lifting or delicate manipulation; if it had any effect on his programming skills it was a positive one, from the need to constantly solve problems that for other people do not exist.

I say “largely functional” because there are other cases that look at whether someone may need levels of care considered special; for example, military rules tend to consider that conditions such as psoriasis are “disabling” when it comes to deciding whether you can enlist.

Is being allergic to peanuts a disability?

A minor one.

Why? Isn’t it (when things are done correctly) mainly disruptive for everyone else?

No. If, for instance, we all decided to stop driving cars in cities so as not to risk the blind, blindness would still be a disability. Disability is a matter of “can’t”, not “won’t”. People with peanut allergy can’t eat peanuts without dying; others around them won’t eat peanuts so as not to risk harming them.

You (personally) can’t eat cyanide without dying - isn’t that a disability then? Or is it a non-issue so long as you avoid eating cyanide? Isn’t it exactly the same with the peanuts, just not for everyone?