The Societal Flaw of Conflating “Impairment” with “Disability”
US Capitol Police Arresting Disability Advocates

In his book, Black Skin, White Masks, philosopher and anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon cast this dynamic of blaming the victim as similar to how a conventional doctor views varicose veins as a condition caused by “constitutional weakness” in the varicose walls of a worker’s legs, when in fact the condition follows from exploitative conditions of overwork under which a person is “compelled to spend ten hours a day on [their] feet.” According to this insight, it is not the worker who has the problem. Rather, it is the network of social relations in the form of oppressive labor extraction that causes the problem.

Feminist philosopher, disability theorist and biomedical ethicist Christine Wieseler similarly argues that medical models of disability “blame the victim” by identifying individual bodies as “problem bodies,” emphasizing the idea of a medical cure that is underwritten by a conception of embodied normativity. In contrast to medical models of disability, she argues, social models of disability rethink ways of “helping people to figure out how to live with impairments and chronic illnesses.”

For Wieseler — an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona — the social model of disability is linked to the counter-hegemonic assertion that disabled people “are capable of living worthwhile lives” and that they have important epistemic contributions to make within a world that negates their capacity for knowledge production. Within this context, Wieseler troubles the arrogance of those who are nondisabled and also challenges bioethicists who presume to know the lived experiences of those who are disabled.

George Yancy: I think that there are many who conceptualize persons with disabilities/disabled people as having something “wrong” with their bodies or their embodiment. In this way, the “wrongness” of the body is said to be intrinsic to the body. It seems to me, however, that such a move deflects from disability studies’ commitment to social justice work. In your engaging article, “Challenging Conceptions of the ‘Normal’ Subject in Phenomenology,” you differentiate between the concept of impairment and disability. Please elaborate on how that distinction might help us to rethink the ways in which the latter concept (disability) brings undeniable attention to issues of injustice within the context of disability studies.

This question creates a distinction between “impairment” and “disability”. To challenge the assumption that there is something wrong with the bodies of individuals and to shift attention to what is wrong with society insofar as it is oppressive to disabled people. The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation introduced the impairment/disability distinction, defining “impairment” as “lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.” You will notice that this is a fairly narrow definition; the term “impairment” has come to be used to refer to a broad array of atypical forms of appearance and ways of functioning. The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation argued that social — not biological — factors caused many of the obstacles people with impairments face. Disability rights activists conceived of the status of disabled people as that of an oppressed minority. The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation says the following about “disability”: