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1.1: Introduction

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    People with disabilities are multifaceted and complex. They work, have families, drive cars, run companies and contribute to the diversity of our country and their communities. They are our neighbors, our friends, our parents and siblings.  They are us!  The treatment of disabled people in history, though, has been one of marginalization, stigma, and discrimination, often using the fact of disability to justify the violation of rights.

    Having a diagnosis of a disability simply means that a person has a condition that might require treatment or specialized intervention – or it might not. Just because someone has a disability diagnosis doesn’t mean anything about a person’s ability, competency or character – it just means that the person identifies as having an impairment or a professional has determined that they have a particular physical or mental condition. As you’ll read below, in society we view diagnoses as being scientifically developed and reliable, but they can also be viewed as socially constructed – that is, what is seen as a problem to be fixed in one society may be viewed as quite typical in others.

    In Disability Studies, we take the approach that although an individual may have an impairment, it’s the barriers they encounter in the physical environment and the lack of opportunity for employment,  access to education, recreation, and housing that can ‘disable’ an individual.  We see these barriers as representing the larger issue of disabling attitudes in society and pervasive disability oppression.  As workers, advocates, parents or siblings, we hope that exploring disability with a critical eye can help us understand more about the interaction between disability and society, and that what we learn can make us better advocates for ourselves and others.

    Although we embrace the social model of disability in disability studies – you’ll learn more about this a bit later –  there are terms that society and professionals use every day to refer to disability. If you’re working in the field, it’s important to understand what the terms mean but also to be able to shift perspective and keep the social model in mind.

    In our daily lives, we encounter different systems – the educational system, the medical system, or perhaps a governmental system that may be providing benefits.  Each of these may have a different way of looking at disability, and different criteria for meeting that system’s definition of disability, further complicating our understanding of disability.

    Remember, though, that every person is different and is an individual.  Having a particular diagnosis or label only means that a person has a particular set of characteristics that seem consistent with a particular condition.  But even people with the same diagnosis may experience the condition in different ways, with different types of support needs.  So, for example, someone with the diagnosis of Down syndrome may need support in many activities of daily living like dressing or eating, and may need a great deal of support in school.  Another individual with the same diagnosis of Down syndrome may graduate from high school with the same diploma as non-disabled classmates and not need support at home at all.

    Physical impairments are conditions that largely affect our senses and mobility – our ability to move through the environment easily.  People with physical disabilities may use assistive devices to help them navigate living – wheelchairs, or walkers, prosthetics, hearing aids, glasses, large print materials, or technology to help them communicate with others.

    Sensory impairments affect our ability to see or hear, or to experience the environment the same way people without these conditions do.  Hearing impairments and vision issues like low vision or blindness are included here.  If the sensory issue occurs before age 21, the child may be considered to have a developmental disability.  Some people have chemical sensitivity, so they have different reactions to odors from the kinds of cleaning materials or perfumes in grooming products than others do, and can have very severe reactions. And some people have a sensitivity to particular kinds of light as well.

    Spinal cord injuries are caused by accidents, such as automobile crashes, falls, domestic or other violence, or other trauma to the spine.  These can occur at any age.  Depending on where the injury occurs, different parts of the body might be affected and the injured person may use a wheelchair for mobility, or may not have use of their arms.  People with injuries higher up on the spinal cord may use a respirator to help them breathe.

    Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) are also caused by accidents – falls where a child or adult hits their head, or a soldier experiences shock to the brain caused by a bomb or gunshot wound. These can also be caused by domestic violence or other violence that affects how the brain functions.

    Limb impairments can be caused by inherited genetic issues, by injuries caused to a developing fetus (like the umbilical cord wrapping around fingers that inhibits their growth) or by amputations because of accidents, trauma, or chronic illness like diabetes.

    Club feet and cleft palates are very common birth defects, and in most cases the cause isn’t known, but is due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.  In developed countries, these conditions are typically corrected in childhood with surgery, but in much of the world people with club feet and people with cleft palates face social barriers to work and relationships.

    Genetic disorders can cause many different disabilities.   DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid -carries the code for all of our genes (a gene is just a sequence of DNA).  When humans reproduce, the DNA from their parents is copied and recombined.  Because humans are so complex, it’s not unusual for parts of DNA to not copy correctly – either some DNA is left out or some DNA is copied too many times.  When a sequence of DNA is left out, it’s called a ‘deletion.’  When DNA is copied to many times, it’s referred as a ‘DNA repeat.’   How these deletions or repeats are expressed in a person depends on which of our 23 pairs of chromosomes has deletions or repeats and how that particular sequence of DNA molecules is expressed in a human being.  ALL of us have both deletions and repeats of DNA in some of our chromosomes and genes, but not all of us have genetic disorders that are expressed in ways that might cause us to be thought of as different from ‘typical’ people.

    Black background with picture of DNA strands in blue.

    Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

    Developmental Disabilities are a group of disabilities, including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, Intellectual Disabilities, Hearing Loss, Learning Disability, Vision Impairments, and delays. These occur before age 21 and are expected to last throughout the lifetime.

    Intellectual disabilities are disabilities that occur before age 21 – during a person’s developmental stage of life – and are likely to be lifelong.  A person with a developmental disability may require support in learning (both academic and experiential learning), judgment and reasoning.  Some people with intellectual disabilities can live independently, work, and have families, while some need maximum support in all aspects of daily living.

    Common developmental disabilities include Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing loss, intellectual or cognitive disability, learning disability, vision impairment, or neurological impairments.

    Intellectual or cognitive disabilities require some specialized assistance in learning.  There is a wide range of people who have this diagnosis, so we can’t assume anything just because a person has a label of intellectual disability.  Most people with intellectual disabilities are able to acquire information and skills in order to live independently and work as adults.  A small percentage, however, need lifelong maximum support in activities of daily living like eating, showering, and dressing.

    There are many causes of intellectual disability, including genetic disorders, falls, malnutrition, environmental pollution, birth trauma, infections, child abuse and accidents.

    Autism Spectrum Disorders are very common – according to the Centers for Disease Control from 2017, 1 in 59 children has been diagnosed with ASD.  The criteria for a diagnosis of ASD are complicated.  You can read the Centers for Disease Control criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder here.

    While ASD is sometimes characterized as a communication disorder, increasingly, some people believe autism is simply a different way of seeing the world, and the behaviors that accompany autism should be viewed as a form of diversity rather than something that needs professional intervention. It’s important to remember that everyone with the diagnosis of ASD is an individual and nothing can be assumed about her or his abilities or need for support simply because of the diagnosis.  Not every autistic person has every trait named in the diagnostic criteria, or experiences the same characteristic in the same way. While there is a growing movement of autistic pride, each autistic person experiences autism in their own way, and each may require different types of support for housing, education, employment, relationships, communication, healthcare, and activities of daily living.  

    Learning Disabilities are very common and can be thought of as a processing disorder, where information is process a bit differently than with people who don’t have this disability. One way to accommodate children and adults with learning disabilities is to provide extra time to process information or to express ideas.  Dyslexia (difficulty in reading), dysgraphia (difficulty in writing), and dyscalculia (difficulty with arithmetic), are common learning disabilities.  Another common learning disability is attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which results in difficulty in sustaining focus.

    Cerebral Palsy is a very common developmental disability that causes people to experience stiff muscles or difficulties with coordination that causes a jerky motion.  In some people it causes a continuous writhing motion. Some people with cerebral palsy can walk, while others need to use a wheelchair for mobility.  A small percentage of cerebral palsy is inherited, but most cerebral palsy is caused by birth trauma or another kind of trauma, such as an accident.

    Some people with cerebral palsy have cognitive or learning disabilities, while many do not. So like having a diagnosis of any other disability, having a diagnosis of cerebral palsy doesn’t imply anything about intelligence, judgment or ability to work.

    Epilepsy is a seizure disorder, where neurons in the brain can cause several different types of seizures.  Some seizures are minor and the individual experiencing them loses contact with the environment for a brief period of time.  Some seizures might cause a person to have repetitive motions for a minute or more.  And some seizures are more involved and cause the person experiencing them to lose control of muscles for a period of time.

    Neurological impairments are a collection of conditions resulting from issues with the nervous system that may cause a range of symptoms. Some neurologic impairments are hidden disabilities that result in the need for some specialized assistance.  Some neurological impairments have a genetic component, while others do not. Neurological impairments include narcolepsy, neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, spina bifida, Prader-Willi syndrome, and Tourette Syndrome.

    This page titled 1.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mariette Bates via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.