The social constructionist approach to disability refers to the idea that people’s experiences of disability are shaped by social and cultural contexts.
The larger body of theories called “social construction” is an attempt to interrogate the political, social, cultural, and economic structures (or “discourses”) which surround identity.
The application of social construction theory to disability began in the late 1970s under the name “Social Model of Disability”.
The goal in this theoretical approach to disability is the collective project of creating a more equitable society with less social barriers for people seen by society as disabled and follows-on from the extensive literature on the social construction of race.
Definition of Social Construction of Disability
According to Jones (1996), the social construction view of disability “defines disability not solely as an individual experience or medical condition but as a socially constructed phenomenon that incorporates the experience of those living with disabilities in interaction with their environments.”
We all live in environments and contexts which impact our day-to-day life that we are unaware of.
Depending on what characteristics we are born with, those environments and contexts can make our life significantly easier or harder when compared to other individuals. The social construction approach to disability tries to understand disability and its barriers within these environments and contexts.
Social Model vs. Medical Model of Disability
|Social Model||Medical Model|
|Goal: create a more equitable society; liberation and equality||Goal: cure or correct the individual; rehabilitation|
|Treats society as the problem||Treats the individual as the problem|
|Disability is a social construct about a physical or mental impairment||Disability is a physical or mental impairment|
|People should always be considered in their environment and context||People should be considered as individual and isolated biological entities|
10 Social Construction of Disability Examples
1. Social Construction of Students with Disabilities
There are many barriers within universities, schools, and other educational institutions that can hinder a person with a disability’s success. These barriers often reflect a social perception (or construction) of disability that positions disabled people as unintelligent or a burden.
For example, a child with a physical impairment may not have sufficient mobility around the classroom. This may impair their ability to access resources or participate in lessons.
For social constructionists, this is not fair. They would see classroom layouts as inherently exclusionary, and it’s the classroom layout that puts the person with a disability at a disadvantage, not the disability itself.
This social model perspective has led to more inclusive classroom designs, such as in the case of the universal design for learning model of education.
2. Social Construction of Autism
Autism is understood in the medical community as a neurological deficit to be corrected.
Social institutions such as primary schools have implemented measures to “normalize” or “correct” an individual diagnosed with autism.
The social construction of autism as a deficit to be corrected begins in the medical community and is perpetuated by social institutions and other environments within which the individual interacts.
Autism is better understood as a neurological divergence, not as an inherent disability. From this social constructionist perspective, people with autism don’t need to be fixed. Rather, society needs to accept them for who they are – different from many, but also with their own gifts and skills.
3. Social Construction of Mental Disorders
Michel Foucault argued that mental disorders are socially constructed. In his dissertation Madness and Civilization he examined how madness has changed over time, demonstrating how society constructs madness.
Foucault’s thesis argued that social perceptions of madness changed over time, demonstrating how it’s a social construct:
- During the renaissance era, mad people were perceived to be wise. They could reveal hidden truths about the world that the rest of us could not access. As a result, they were listened to and consulted about philosophical topics.
- During the classical era, mad people were positioned as pariahs. They were shunned by society and their freedom to participate in public discussion was severely restricted.
- During the modern era, mad people were seen as sick. They were restricted to mental institutions where psychological methods were used to try to ‘fix’ them.
In each era, the possible ways ‘mad’ people could participate in society, move through public spaces, and gain employment were vastly different. Thus, the way they were socially constructed affected how they could go about their lives.
4. Social Construction of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are typically treated as an individual disability which requires an individual approach to remediation.
The social construction view of learning disabilities, by contrast, aims to accommodate for learning disabilities to ensure these students have equal opportunities to succeed.
For example, a learner with dyslexia may have once been socially constructed as unintelligent. Today, we would realize that people with dyslexia are not more or less intelligent than others – we’ve changed our social construction of dyslexia thanks to changing perspectives and better knowledge of the topic.
Today, we would realize that a teacher’s instruction strategy needs to be differentiated to ensure people with dyslexia are not disadvantaged.
For example, students might need an aide during exams who can write the essay that is dictated by the student; or, they might need to have the content read to them because people with dyslexia have trouble reading printed text, but can listen just fine.
5. Disability in the Workplace
In western capitalism, a worker’s value is determined primarily by how productive they are – their human capital. This means that the more expensive each individual is to hire, the more productive they should be to offset the cost of their employment.
Because people with physical or mental impairments require more assistance to reach equal goals as others, employers are hesitant to implement forms of accessible employment for those individuals.
The social construction of disability is reinforced in the workplace by its categorization of people as “less productive” and “more productive.”
6. Disabled Representation in the Media
Many of our heroes in the media are very able-bodied and physically “normal.” Think of the Marvel franchise’s most well-known heroes. One thing they have in common is normal physical abilities.
We are surrounded by images of heroes of various sorts, all of which reinforce a particular social construction of disability: that is, people with disabilities cannot be heroes.
The narrative portrayed in media (TVs, movies, books, etc.) is that heroes must be at least physically capable to function as everyone else in society.
7. Architecture and Urban Planning
The social constructionist view of disabilities sees architecture and urban design (the layout of cities) as built to the bodies of people without disabilities.
Stairs, street-crossings, and doors can inhibit people with disabilities from enjoying urban living as much as other people, reinforcing the social narrative that people with mental or physical impairments have an inherent disability.
The social constructionist solution would see the architecture of the buildings or the limited design of a city as the issue, not the individual with the impairment.
8. Disability and Masculinity
Another fascinating way disability is socially constructed is through its intersection with gender norms.
Historically, men have felt as if they couldn’t show weakness. As a result, they would often try to hide their mental or physical disability for fear of being seen as unmasculine or even feminine.
This social construction of disability as being antithetical to masculine has led many men to resist seeking help for learning disorders, physical problems, and – significantly – mental health issues.
Many public awareness campaigns make efforts to re-frame the social construction of disability to include men in the discussion in order to encourage them to talk about their experiences with disability and receive the necessary assistance to ensure they can fully participate in social life.
See Also: The Social Construction of Gender
9. Disabled People as Apolitical
Consider going to your local institution to cast your ballot in the recent midterms. The purpose of voting is to uphold the principles of democracy by voicing your opinion where it matters most: to policy-makers.
Individuals with disabilities may have difficulty accomplishing these tasks if there are no attempts to make voting more accessible. 11 percent of voters with disabilities reported barriers due to their unique characteristics to voting during the 2020 presidential election.
These barriers stifle the voices of people with disabilities so that less policies will reflect their unique needs, which obviously and materially contributes to the social and political construction of people with disabilities.
10. Disabled People as Asexual
People with developmental or physical disabilities are often seen as not having or experiencing sexual needs or desires. The are socially constructed as asexual people.
In truth, people with disabilities also experience these very human needs, yet the stigma may be internalized by some people with disabilities.
The social construction of people with disabilities as asexual works to further marginalize them and construct stereotypes about what it’s like to live with a disability.
Greater representation of disabled peoples’ dating live in media may, over time, help to overcome this stereotype and re-imagine how people with disabilities are socially constructed in mainstream discourse.
The social construction of disability refers to social, political, and economic environments and contexts which serve to perpetuate oppression of individuals with disabilities in society.
In the theory of social constructionism, an identity such as a “disability” only makes sense if it is understood within a particular context. Therefore, the medical model of disability leaves out the contextual framework within which “disability” is created and perpetuated.
The solution to many of the hardships people with disabilities face is not to rehabilitate the individual, but to investigate and change those factors in society which serve as barriers to equality for people with disabilities.
Collier, L. (2017). Seeking intimacy: People with physical disabilities fight hurtful stereotypes when looking for relationship partners. American Psychological Association, 48(11). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/12/seeking-intimacy.
Dimmick, B. & Aksoz, A. M. (2022). Voting with a disability: Breaking down barriers to the ballot. ACLU, News and Commentary. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/news/voting-rights/voting-with-a-disability.
Dudley-Marling, C. (2016). The social construction of learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(6), 482-489. DOI: 10.1177/00222194040370060201.
Jones, S. (1996). Towards inclusivity: Disability as social construction. NASPA Journal, 33(4), 347-354. DOI: 10.1080/00220973.1996.11072421.
Molloy, H. & Vasil L. (2002). The social construction of Asperger Syndrome: The pathologising difference? Disability and Society, 17(6), 659-669. DOI: 10.1080/0968759022000010434.
National Disability Arts Collection Archive. Fundamental Principles of Disability. Retrieved from Fundamental Principles of Disability – National Disability Arts Collection & Archive (the-ndaca.org).
Oliver, M. (2013). The social model of disability: Thirty years on. Disability and Society, 28(7), 1024-1026. DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2013.818773.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.