Defining Disability

Part One: The Mechanistic View of Disability

A student is raising her hand. "Um, I don't know if this is off topic, but are left handed people disabled?"

She might be hoping to induce a rant that will last the remaining thirty minutes of class and absolve my students of the responsibility of discussing "Life Everlasting" an article about the Right to Die movement and the religious right.

"This is actually a very good question. In order to answer questions about the ultimate goal of healing, we have to figure out what means to be sick and how we define words like illness and disability."

Martin, an engineering major, answered a similar question posed to his class earlier in the day. "Disability means your body doesn't work the way it is supposed to." Such a view is characteristic of the mechanistic view of healing. Arthur Frank in his book The Wounded Storyteller:Body, Illness, and Ethics describes the mechanistic view as "the body has to be a kind of machine. A Nobel prize-winning physician...suggested for the reporter to understand his work, he should think of the body as a television set...Restitution requires fixing, and fixing requires a mechanistic view" (88). In Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing G. Thomas Couser warns that although such a paradigm offers a "quick fix for every bodily too often alienates us from our bodies" (10).

The OED's definition of disability "Want of ability (to discharge any office or function); inability, incapacity, impotence" would agree with Martin's assessment. Yet, how does one consider writer painters like Christy Brown or author physics professor Stephen Hawking as having a "want of ability"? Although Brown typed out his story using his left foot, he was still able to do so. And Hawking himself claims in a section on his website about disability that there are not a lot of activities which the ALS prevents him from enjoying.<br>

The mechanistic approach can also characterize the disabled person in a hopelessly negative way. Although the mechanistic view may not be too damaging to patients with sporadic illness, if a disabled person adapts the mechanistic view, he or she sees himself as permanently broken or ill functioning. In a world of iPods, the disabled person sees himself as an A-track tape.

The attractiveness of the mechanistic model is that it is objectively quantifiable. I am often met with suspicion when I identify myself as a disabled person. "You don't look disabled," is the most common response. I can produce, however, the results of numerous tests, gaits labs, and biopsies that demonstrate objectively that I suffer from severe neurological problems as well as circulation and orthopedic problems despite my ability to appear fully functioning.

After I explain the mechanistic approach I say, "I don't think left handed people would see themselves as 'broken', do you?" In my afternoon class I have a left handed student. He gives me a pointed look. Although I have specially requested a left handed desk for him ( he did not ask me to do so), he rarely bothers use it. Often it becomes a foot rest for the other students.

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