Disability is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UN CRPPD) as resulting “from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation”. Contained in this definition is an acknowledgment that is often implicit rather than explicit – that disability is a social construction rather than a natural or biological process that man has power on how it is determined and who is deemed to have a disability or not. In accepting that disability is a social construction, there is an acknowledgment of the fact that societies are deeply ingrained in cultures which can be used to promote harmony and social order but also can be manipulated to perpetuate inequalities and unjust treatment of some members in societies.
Impairment, on the other hand, is defined, by the World Health Organization, as “any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function”. In this regard, impairment can be looked as a biological process with reference to anatomical deficiencies which society can address to create a just environment for all to enjoy and be able to harness their full potential and attain proper social, economic and political functioning. In short, impairment refers to the physical or cognitive limitations that individuals may have, such as the inability to walk or see, but that “disability” refers to socially imposed restrictions. These restrictions, mean that at one point in time we are disabled by society. It could be in the job market, classroom, religious assembly, name it, because of differences in sexual orientations, social background or political inclinations.
Disability, therefore, refers to the relationship between people with impairments and their environment, placing emphasis on the shortcomings in the environment and the social institutions that impede impaired people from participating in society on equal terms with others. These shortcomings include the lack of information, transportation, education, and opportunities available to people with impairments. In attempting to question the normally held notion of disability, we should place greater emphasis on the way people with impairments are defined by the wider community and on the obligations of the community to recognize their rights and capabilities. It should not be based on the way people adjust to the expectations of society but rather the way society adjusts to us all.
It can be argued that if society (by society, I mean the people, social and political systems, the market, the government and cultural institutions) put in place the requisite mechanisms and systems that cater to the deficiencies of all by virtue of their gender, anatomical and body defects, social backgrounds and political affiliation, we would be moving in a direction where there is acceptance of persons and groups for who they are not what society perceives them to be. This is a world of diversity not disability which might so simple to achieve; only that we are too much trapped in semantic squabbles of what terminologies actually mean and debased academic debates that have failed to provide a cogent solution to social problems and critical issues.
Envisioning a World of Diversity, Not Disability
I have always argued and I am not about to relent – that appreciation of diversity is the first and foremost most reliable solution to the global issues relating to service delivery, power relations, social classes and the market place. Our colonial past and its resultant offspring has set a dangerous precedent by giving us a marking guide upon which to measure right and wrong, good and evil, what works and doesn’t work etc. This means an approach that is only two way and gives no room for innovation, invention and thinking outside the box. Diversity can help us fight radicalism, extremism and fundamentalism, social and political intolerance and lead the push towards a more equitable and tolerant society.
Diversity is a broad area that could signify diversity in our interests, tastes and preferences, opinions, beliefs and cultures among others. Creating a world that accepts diversity denotes putting in place structures, systems, mechanisms and frameworks that accept everyone for who they are and enable them to function as if they were the exact opposite of the other and that functioning should be infinite and boundless. For the people with impairments, that means creating ramps to enable accessibility of all and sundry, constructing roads with audio-visual sign posts, zebra crossings, traffic lights and wide lanes to enable the visually impaired, the physically challenged, those with hearing limitations and the ‘able-bodied’ to use them as and when they wish without challenges and impediments.
Accepting impairment as diversity not as disability is acknowledging that disability is an outcome of society’s failure to integrate and accommodate people with impairments. For a 21st century nation and planet, disability is something that is highly preventable and avoidable because of the technological advancements, tremendous leaps and bounds made in the world of research and too much data available to enable society come up with solutions and strategies for all encompassing development initiatives.
Conclusively, I opine that the world stands to gain a lot from perceiving impairment as a matter of diversity rather than disability because it is the only way to creating a society that is accommodative and can adjust to the needs of all their anatomical and body deficiencies, gender, sex and race notwithstanding. It is the only way to creating a society whose technocrats design development interventions and programs that are cognizant of the needs and specific challenges of all groups of people. Diversity is the only way to entrenching a culture of tolerance to dissent and difference. Outside diversity, then only disability can prevail.