Dis/ability Dialectic: the “/” in dis/ability

Ability is a dialectical concept. It has an opposition with which it can be bound, and into for resolution. By which it then follows that “disability” is a dialectical concept. (None of this is particularly radical; I’m just stating it to present a clear position to reason from.)

Some days are pretty dark for me: joy escapes me no matter where I’m sitting; every movement seems blatantly useless; smiles are just so very very far away. There are days when I’m mired in a plethora of movement: every nerve comes alive, comes to trip me up, and my mind challenges every sensation; these are days of distrust, of pushing my body farther from me so I don’t get swallowed up in all the false messages my senses are sending.

That’s hard to do, I tell you.

Other days are filled with smiles and sunshine (to be very cliché about it). I may not be able to move well but I experience success in good writing stretches; books are alive, and I’m soaking up the contents of a universe; my relationships are pleasant and loving; I don’t dip down into the inferno of anger to rage about nothing; I don’t curse every movement; I climb stairs with some kind of grace. Some days I can fly a kite with my child.

There are abilities. And there are those of us who, for the duration of our lives, are forced deal with a spectrum of abilities that seems to be on the shy end, the neglected and unfortunate end because we can’t hear/walk/see, and so on. That spectrum can swing the pendulum over into the world of disabilities.

Because it is a spectrum, because it is a dialectic, I indicate that in the break; in the /, I believe can work away at the negative stigma associated with the “dis” in disabilities because it may make us remember that there are moving parts here, that there is no stasis. Disabilities are dynamic; just like abilities.

The medical model

There is a model, an explanation of disabilities that says, roughly, that disabilities are like diseases; they are malfunctions in our equipment that we may or may not be able to overcome, or “cure”.

“There are three main features of the individual medical approach. Firstly, disability is regarded as a problem at the individual level; additionally, it is equated with individual functional limitations; thirdly, medical knowledge and practice determine the treatment options” — Hui Yu Kou

In the disability pride movement, this definition is hard to swallow. After all, the point is to help people understand that people with disabilities are people, and those people actually also possess abilities.

The medical model, therefore, is damaging when it comes to trying to shed stigma and show a life that has positives in it, not to mention the fact that it isn’t always the case that physicians are not able to correctly assess or ascertain what someone with disabilities might be able to do.

Point in case: when I was diagnosed with hearing-impairment as a toddler, some kind of malfunction in the semi-circular canals and perhaps something else, the doctors told my parents that I’d never learn to ride a bike, and I’d never be able to roller skate. It may have taken me longer than the average kid, but I can do both of these things. (My parents didn’t tell me until after I was able to do those things what the doctors had said about what I wouldn’t do.)

Sophia Isako Wong (2007), for instance, notes that at one point in time doctors believed that the hearing-impaired were non-educable and non-verbal. Such prognoses tend to harm the possible life that persons with disabilities can have.

Which is not to claim that doctors know nothing and can have no positive effect in our lives. I have a great deal of respect for my physicians, especially since both my family doctor and neurologist practice epistemic modesty: they do not claim to know the reason when they don’t know.

The social model

“The social model of disability holds that many persons are impaired in many ways, but that it is only by society that they become disabled. People are impaired, but society disables.” — David Bolt

The social model of disabilities was put forward by Michael Oliver in the 1980s, developed first by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation in the mid-70’s. The premise for this model was that society was structured in such a way to create disabilities out of individual impairments. So, for instance, a city with no wheelchair ramps into public buildings, with no ramps to make it easier for wheelchairs to get up onto sidewalks, create disability by excluding the disabled person from participation in society.

The social model has the benefit, over the medical model, in that it doesn’t automatically come with a sense that a value judgement has been made. That is, when people talk in terms of “cure” or “disease”, it’s hard to think positively about such normatively laden terms. The norms are “whole” bodies, bodies with “normal” abilities. But by making the disabling come from the social structures themselves, the medical model shifts that judgement to society. It is then society’s responsibility to their disabled citizens to find ways to include them, to give them the opportunity to participate as far as they are able.

The “dis” in dis/ability

“Dis”, according to www.dictionary.com is

“a Latin prefix meaning ‘apart’, ‘asunder’, ‘away’, ‘utterly’, or having a privative, negative, or reversing force […]”

One can immediately see how some people confuse “disability” with mere lack of a certain ability/abilities; if “dis” means “apart”, then one perhaps thinks of apart from the norm (of the species). So to be blind is merely the lack of sight. A quadriplegic cannot walk. Yet the totality of a life is not in any one sense. Anyone with an impairment, whether negative (by which we can call a loss of a sense), or positive (like the addition of pain in the life of someone with fibromyalgia, painful neuropathies) can have a life beyond the limitations of their impairment.

In fact, the social model of disability speaks to this exact thing: if society can change some structures, then people with impairments can be a part of it (not apart from it). I can, for instance, speak to the joys of silence, when I remove my hearing aid at the end of the day. With the advent of my neuropathy, I encountered a world of disability that I had never known, or had ignored in an attempt to be of the ordinary world. But I knew that my life wasn’t over, no matter how differently I have to navigate the world now.


I hope by now that it is obvious that there is nothing obvious about any one impairment or other. One of the challenges, though, I believe that comes with the social model of disability, is that by making a distinction between “impairment” and “the society that disables”, is that we still talk of the disabled as the disabled. By which I mean that the “impaired” and the “disabled” still refer, essentially, to the same person/group of persons. Perhaps the single most important attitudinal shift that comes from the social model is that it takes away the stigma in terms of making disabilities the disabled person’s fault.

We use the term disability to indicate many different conditions, but that alone doesn’t mean that any one of the conditions can exhaust the sense in which the person who is disabled is not disabled but impaired.

If that makes any sense…

Assuming, therefore, that what we have is, in reality, a plural, variegated, dialectic concept, dis/ability can indicate this. But (and here’s where I think the value of the neologism comes in), what is referred to as disability in fact conveys the brokenness of an individual, or is used as a policy concept (as in “Disability Tax Credit”); whereas dis/ability points towards the spectrum of abilities.

I am thinking that we can imbue dis/abilities with the sense that it belongs, conceptually, to more than this, to more than just mental health issues, or physical impairments. I want to use the neologism “dis/ability” to help us unify our humanity. In such fashion we can account for the fact that there are positives in the lives of disabled people,partly because we already assume that the abled have positive experiences (by virtue of the fact that they are “able”), partly because we’ve no excuse for assuming the misery (or not) of any person’s existence on the grounds that they are “missing” something.

The idea behind dis/ability is to continue talking about the concerns caused by impairments and abilities. It is intended to convey the dialectic, and resolution (that is the continuity that exists between everyone). I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but this is what I mean when I use this spelling.



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J.D. Harms

J.D. Harms

Former hairstylist, perpetual philosophy student, swallowed by poetry, writing, ideas