Disability and its Representation in Social Media Series

This work of four blog posts on disability and its representation in social media barely scratches the surface of the issues and prejudices faced by this marginalized group. I hope that through these blog posts I can educate people about the way disability is viewed in our society, the realities of social media and disability, what disabled bloggers and social media users are doing, and a reflection on the future. The overall question is: Can social media change society’s perceptions and attitudes towards disability?

The following is the first instalment of a series written for a Masters course on Communication and Social Change, it sets the context as well as provides a very brief overview of how society views disability and focuses on two of the most popular academic disability models: the medical and the social.

Part 1: A Brief Discussion of How Society Views Disability

In academia there are many different ways in which disability[1] is perceived. The two most prevalent and contrasting views of disability are the dominant and more traditional medical model of disability, and its counterpart, the social model of disability. For a long time disability has been viewed through the lens of the medical model. This viewpoint, in combination with traditional media, has perpetuated the negative stereotypes and social prejudices faced by individuals with disabilities[2] in their daily lives. The medical model, as described by Louella McCarthy (2008), suggests that the source of disability lies with the individual and that it is here, in the disabled body, where intervention occurs to “cure” or “fix” the impairment(s). The medical model has been the dominant line of thinking and focuses on the individual; this model stands in contrast to the social model of disability, which takes the stance that disability is a construct of society and what I believe to be our social organization, highlighting negative attitudes and physical, as well as mental, exclusion from what able-bodied[3] people consider basic activities of daily living. The social model of disability takes the onus away from the individual, focusing instead, for example, on the built environment and/or the socially constructed prejudices that exist in modern society. While the built environment of the physical world poses challenges to those who use mobility devices or suffer from vision loss, the built environment of the Internet poses different challenges for individuals with learning disabilities (Ellis & Goggin, 2013). For framing discussions about disability these two models provide great contrast, and are starting points to understanding the realities of how individuals with disabilities are both discussed and treated by the general population.

The medical model of disability has been criticized for its “blaming the victim” attitude that some scholars, like Tom Shakespeare and Nicholas Watson (1997), suggest represents a lack of understanding towards the realities of living with a disabled body and within a disability-phobic society. Also, the attitude of blaming the victim creates a situation where an individual with a disability is at fault for having a physical incapacity that restricts their participation in society (Goggin & Newell, 2003b). I find this idea to be completely ludicrous; how can someone be blamed for something that is completely out of their control? Nobody says to themselves “Hmmm, I think I’ll have a disability today!” or “Wouldn’t it be great if I was born with a disability?” The idea of even suggesting that these two thoughts are rational is ridiculous, nobody wishes to be outside the normative sphere; society should therefore not marginalize these individuals simply based on the idea that they are a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. The social model of disability is also criticized because it is taken as a holistic approach to managing disability when in actual fact it was meant to be a starting point for how to view disability in a complex society. Goggin and Newell (2003b) explain that the social model of disability creates a distinction between the impairment and the disability, whereas in the medical model the impairment is the disability and the disability could be interpreted as the person. They continue to discuss how, in the social model, an impairment is the biological condition directly associated with an individual body, which is believed to be distinguishable from the disability, a construct and product of society related to power that is created once an individual enters into a social environment.

So, disability in the context of a social model is defined by society, and in the context of the medical model is defined by its medical condition. The World Health Organization (WHO) has modified its traditional medical definition to a hybrid medical and social definition that states: “Disability is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. … Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” The alteration of the WHO’s definition of disability is a milestone in the fight against negative perceptions about disability, as the WHO has been heavily criticized in recent history for being a medical model stronghold. This shows that it is possible to alter viewpoints, and while the WHO is not representative of everyday society, it does represent a huge step forward in combating how countries (developed and developing) across the world will form their policies and laws pertaining to the rights and freedoms for individuals with disabilities. Perhaps more organizations, particularly mainstream media as well as developers and users of social media, will take note of the WHO’s changing perspectives and make a move to adjust society’s interpretation of the capabilities and stereotypes that are identified with individuals with disabilities.


[1] I struggle with the use of the word “disability,” but for clarity sack I will continue to use this wording to reference any individual who functions in society with some form of adaptation, whether that be a mobility device, a screen reader, etc. The semantics of disability are abundant and an entire article could be spent discussing only this aspect of disability.

[2] I chose to use the phrasing “individual with a disability” or “individuals with disabilities” because it separates us (individuals with disabilities) from each other and attempts to avoid the grouping of people who share the only similarity of having a disability. I believe that this phrasing emphasizes the idea that disability is individual and not collective as the following phrasings — to name only a few — people with disabilities and persons with disabilities, suggest. In addition, I believe that the label of “individual” implies independence, self-sufficiency, and empowerment.

[3] I hesitate to use the phrasing able-bodied because it makes me uncomfortable and seems very binary in its definition.

References and Further Reading

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). (2014). Retrieved from http://www.aoda.ca/

Andersen, L. (2014). The seated view. Retrieved March 30, 2014, from http://theseatedview.blogspot.ca/

Baker, P. M. A., Bricout, J. C., Moon, N. W., Coughlan, B., & Pater, J. (2013). Communities of participation: A comparison of disability and aging identified groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. Telematics and Informatics, 30(1), 22–34. doi:10.1016/j.tele.2012.03.004

BBC News. (2014). Ouch! Retreived March 29, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs/ouch/

Cohen-Rottenberg, R. (2014). Disability and representation: Changing the cultural conversation. Retrieved March 30, 2014, from http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/

Disability in cyberspace – Using social media for social change. (2012). Scribd. Retrieved March 25, 2014, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/79424891/Disability-in-Cyberspace-Using-Social-Media-for-Social-Change

Ellis, K., & Goggin, G. (2013). Disability and social media. In J. Hunsinger & T. Senft (Eds.), The social media handbook (pp. 126–143). New York, NY: Routledge.

FWD (feminists with disabilities) for a way forward. (2014). Mission statement. Retrieved from March 30, 2014, http://disabledfeminists.com/about/

Goggin, G., & Newell, C. (2003a). Disability in its social context. In Digital disability: The social construction of disability in new media, (pp. 19–35). New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, Inc.

Goggin, G., & Newell, C. (2003b). Encountering technology, media, and culture. In Digital disability: The social construction of disability in new media, (pp. 3–18). New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Haller, B. (n.d.). Social media and disability rights activism: Is the Internet finally providing ‘liberating technology?’. Media and Disability Resources. Retrieved from March 25, 2014, https://mediadisability.wordpress.com/sds-social-media-paper/

McCarthy, L. (2008). Disabling the medical model. Metascience, 17(2), 207–214.

Medical model of disability. (2014, March 31). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Medical_model_of_disability&oldid=591155711

Opinion: “Breaking Bad’s” RJ Mitte not disabled, despite disability. (2014, March 7). The Lantern. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from http://thelantern.com/2014/03/opinion-breaking-bad-rj-mitte-disabled-despite-disability

RJ Mitte. (2014, April 6). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=RJ_Mitte&oldid=601935546

Shakespeare, T. , & Watson, N. (1997). Defending the social model. Disability& Society, 12(2), 293–300. doi:10.1080/09687599727380

Social model of disability. (2014, March 25). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Social_model_of_disability&oldid=593110853

Technological determinism. (2014, April 1). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Technological_determinism&oldid=602199672

Tracey, E. (2011, April 5). Social networking, the disabled view. BBC – Ouch! It’s a disability thing – Features. Retrieved March 29, 2014, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/features/social_network_savvie.shtml

United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. (2014). Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ADA.gov. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/index.html

Where’s the benefit. (n.d.). Where’s the benefit: Campaigning against the government’s distressing war on disabled benefit claimants. Retrieved from March 30, 2014, http://wheresthebenefit.blogspot.ca/

WHO | Disabilities. (n.d.). WHO. Retrieved March 25, 2014, from http://www.who.int/topics/disabilities/en

WHO | 10 facts on disability. (2013, September). WHO. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/disability/en

Zayid, M. (2013). I got 99 problems… palsy is just one. Retrieved March 29, 2014, from https://www.ted.com/talks/maysoon_zayid_i_got_99_problems_palsy_is_just_one



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