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The difference between impairment and disability

In this video, Eric Emerson describes the difference between disability and impairment.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Disability and impairment.
ERIC EMERSON: Disabilities and impairment. They’re two related concepts, but for me, they’re completely separate. Impairments are things which happen to our bodies, our minds or whatever, that can be problematic. Disability is about the extent to which having an impairment in a particular society, a particular time and place, leads to disadvantage and discrimination. So for example, I have an impairment. This side of my face is paralysed. I’ve never felt disabled because of that. It sometimes causes some minor problems. People think I have a very cynical smile. And then when I mention that actually this side of my face is paralysed, that’s why I have a lopsided smile. And people go [GASPS]. That’s terrible. So sorry.
But in a different society, where facial expression was really, really important, then maybe I would be disabled. But I’m not. And so disability’s about disadvantage, it’s about discrimination. Impairment’s just about health. We all have impairments, we all have health conditions. But most of us are not disabled by them.

In this brief clip, Eric Emerson — a Professor at the Centre for Disability Research and Policy, University of Sydney — describes what he sees as the difference between impairment and disability.

Eric uses his own experience as an example. He says that his particular impairment does not have many disabling effects. This suggests that the types of problems people with impairments have to deal with depends on their situation. Disabling attitudes and discrimination, then, depend on the relationship between your impairment and the societal conditions in which you find yourself.

Talking points

For many disabled people and their allies, this distinction between impairment and disability is fundamental to understanding disability. Someone is not disabled because they have an impairment, they are disabled by society’s attitudes towards it. Discuss your thoughts on this in the comments.
You may like to respond to one or more of the following questions:
  • Does this challenge the way you thought about disability prior to doing this course?
  • Do you agree with this point of view?
  • Do you think it is true for every impairment?
  • Have you had personal experiences of this difference between impairment and disability?
  • How do you think this distinction links to the medical and social models discussed in the previous step?

This ends the Basics for Week 1. In the next step, we Expand our interests by examining global attitudes towards disability.

To return to your weekly view, click “To Do” at the top of the page.

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Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

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