Interpretations of Disability – Dr Yansie Rolston

Mention the word ‘Disability’ and for most people the first thing that comes to mind is the image of tragedy, incapacity, suffering, and body failure that requires pity as an appropriate emotional response. But disability is not a homogenous unitary concept – it is mired in a multiplicity of conceptualisations and constructs.

There is a moralistic assertion that disablement equates to victimhood and charity status, and that disabled people are all striving for able-bodiedness and social normalisation, with a desire or need for fixing. This reinforces the dominance of the medicalisation of disability and the preoccupation of health practitioners with the ‘making right’ of disabled people. The result is that many disabled people endure psychological and physiological intrusions to heal, cure or correct their impairments, even when there is little chance of successful ‘normalisation’. For example, someone like Lisa, who has undergone numerous painful operations to make her significantly underdeveloped legs aesthetically acceptable even though they will never be functional.

Such concepts also have more profound implications as they subliminally reinforce the notion that disability is an abnormality requiring professional interventions. At the same time it also undermines those with impairments by denying them the freedom to choose to accept – if they so desire – the impairments, any accompanying pains, and inconveniences as part of their lived realities This is not to say that there should be a denial of the positive influences of medical interventions, what I’m saying is that there should be less pressure on disabled people to conform to perceived social norms especially because impairments can be interpreted differently depending on the culture in which they are being experienced. For example, in some societies deafness is categorised as a disability, while others vehemently denounce the disability label and instead self-identify as being part of a linguistic minority.

The need is there for a refined approach that represents the lived realities of disability in the society in which it is experienced. In other words, the impaired body needs to be placed within the specific history, politics, culture and meaning, given the time and space in which the impairment is being experienced.

My curiosity on the intertwining of religion and disability led me to numbers of references in religious text where bodily impairments are underpinned by cultural values and affiliations, such as sin, shame, punishment, good and evil – The person with Leprosy is discriminated and ostracised “he shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease, He is unclean, He shall live alone, His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (King James Bible Leviticus 13 45:46). It therefore stands to reason that in societies where religious and spiritual ways of thinking are dominant, disability will more likely be perceived as punishment – but that is problematic. What about the individual who starts incoherent ramblings during the laying of hands in a church service? The interpretation will be that they are speaking in tongues which is an expression of a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit; if the person was standing at the side of the road rambling incoherently, passers by will assume the individual was experiencing an episode of mental illness; and if the incoherent ramblings occurred at a family home where superstition is rife, the interpretation would be that they are possessed by an evil spirit – The same affliction but three different interpretations. Disability is therefore based upon a complexity of cultural paradigms, models of reality and value systems.

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