MoNSTerBlog – October 31, 2006: The Difference Between Impairment And Disability

The Difference Between Impairment And Disability

Words maketh the man. How true that is. However, it is also a yardstick of ones’ ignorance. Through generations of conditioning, we tend to accept that disabled persons are marginalised because something is not right with them. Subsequently, we use inappropriate words to portray them, resulting in a way of thinking that sees their condition as a fault rather than the error in our way of perceiving them.

Impairment and disability are often accepted as two words with the same meaning. In reality, there is a stark difference between the significance of those words. Impairment describes someone who is paralysed, blind or deaf, among others. It describes the “imperfect” condition of the person as opposed to people who are considered “normal” by virtue of them being in the majority.

A person with impairment experiences disability when he is excluded from active participation in society. A building with stairs only for an entrance imposes disability on a wheelchair user. Add a ramp to it and the wheelchair user with physical impairment no longer experiences disability. In short, a person with impairment is not necessarily a person with a disability. On the contrary, disability is caused by the way things are constructed. It is as simple as that.

This clearly differentiates between the antiquated Medical Model of Disability and the Social Model of Disability. The former emphasises on the medical conditions of the individual – causes, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation. His condition is seen as an impediment and every attempt is made to rehabilitate him to become as “normal” as possible. In many ways, the person is identified by his impairments, thus reducing him to a person who is lesser in every sense as a human being.

Social Model of Disability on the other hand sees society as the disabling factor. The way how things are being built and done disenfranchises this group of people. This model propounds a change from the traditional attitudes and approach when dealing with problems associated with disabled persons.

It underlines the individual as a person with dignity, choices and independence. His rights are respected. He is treated as an equal in society. The ideal of this model is that by changing the disabling environment and mindset, disabled persons become enabled and empowered. That was clearly illustrated in the explanation of the difference between impairment and disability.

Sad to say, Malaysia in the 21st century still clings on to the Medical Model of Disability. The most obvious example is the setup of urban public transportation. All but one public transport in the Klang Valley are inaccessible to wheelchair users. That encompasses even the most modern fleet of buses plying the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

The government and public service corporations must move away from the discriminating attitude of dishing out crumbs to disabled persons as an afterthought. Disabled persons are not beggars asking for charity. They are citizens of this country and should be accorded the same rights as non-disabled citizens.

Policy makers should work together with disabled persons to understand how best to build a society that includes them in every aspect. To achieve this, all parties concerned should take heed and make it a point to seriously adopt the Social Model of Disability so that no one group is deliberately left out because there is a lack of understanding of their needs.

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.