Autism and the Complication of the Disability/Impairment Binary

Autistic Academic

One of the “main ideas” in disability studies is the concept that “disability,” or marginalization in the social sphere, is distinct from “impairment,” or medical limitations.  “Disability” becomes the category for things that prevent differently-bodied/differently-brained people from participating in “normal” society, like a lack of curb cuts or intolerance for alternative communication styles like typing or sign language – things that are understood to be changeable (and thus to be the fault of society for not changing).  “Impairment,” by contrast, typically describes the underlying body/brain difference that makes the disability relevant, like lower-limb paralysis (thus a need for curb cuts) or deafness (thus a need for communication alternatives to spoken/heard language).

A lot of critics and activists like this distinction.  It allows them to advocate for changes without tangling with messy ideas, like challenging our cultural 1:1 correlation between body/brain function and economic value.  Getting a curb cut installed feels…

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