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The importance of human diversity to a good life

In this video, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Therese Sands and Gwynnyth Llewellyn discuss ideas of human diversity, disability inclusion, and a good life
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. The importance of human diversity.
ROSEMARIE GARLAND-THOMSON: Disability inclusion has become an important element in the larger movements toward inclusion that, in the end of the 19th century and into the middle of the 20th century, have worldwide increased the participation of large numbers of people who were previously excluded. One of the things that’s distinctive about disability inclusion is that the population, let’s say, that counts as disabled is extremely large. It’s an extremely porous group of people. All of us can and will become disabled over a lifetime. So the constituency, as it were, for disability rights and disability inclusion is all of us. And in that sense, it’s a very capacious diversity initiative, let’s say, worldwide.
One of the most important social and political developments that has come from the disability rights movement worldwide has been the entry of people with disabilities as people with disabilities into the public world, into education, into the spaces that we’ve been excluded from before. What’s really important about this is that we are now entering in and participating as I mentioned, as people with disabilities. And what this means is that we aren’t trying to pass anymore for non-disabled. And one of the most important witnessings of this is the technology that we use.
For example, prosthetic limbs, let’s say– and a variety of other prosthetics– used to be designed so that they would mimic fleshly body parts, so that a prosthetic leg would be a plastic or a metal replica of a fleshly leg. And now technology has allowed us to showcase, let’s say, our disabled status. And what this achieves is that it makes us more distinctive in the world. And it shows that there is disability diversity everywhere. So no longer having to hide our disabilities has helped to increase the presence of disabled people in the world. It’s helped to make non-disabled people know that they know disabled people. It’s helped us to be out. It’s helped us to come out.
And that’s a very important political statement to be able to make.
THERESE SANDS: Thinking of people with disability in terms of human diversity is really important. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability actually talks about people with disability as being part of the human diversity. And the more we understand it that way, the more it’s an inclusive understanding of people with disability rather than constantly viewing them as the “other” and seeing them as distinct from everybody else. So it means that everyone at any time as part of human diversity could acquire a health condition or an impairment that will result in a disability. So I think the other thing that’s important in terms of understanding people with disability is the social model.
Situating people with disability within the social model as opposed to the medical model means that we don’t deny that a person has an individual impairment or a health condition, including a mental health condition. But it’s the interaction of that person with society and their environment that create– and the barriers that are created, the stigma, the discrimination, that’s the disability. That’s what creates the disability. So we again can see that society needs to look at how it removes those barriers, that discrimination and the stigma, to ensure that we can celebrate that human diversity.
GWYNNYTH LLEWELLYN: The whole concept of living a good life– and it’s not to me about a good life, it’s about living a good life, because clearly it’s very individual. And that’s exactly what human diversity is. People who are disabled in a culture are part of the human condition. And you start to understand that all of their lives are very diverse. So what is living a good life? Well, I think that’s a really challenging question to ask in the abstract because it is so individualised. Often what we do is just say if people’s rights are realised they will lead a good life. Well, my experience with disabled persons’ organisations all around the world is that that’s actually not true at all.
There are many other things which are fundamental. And perhaps you won’t be surprised by me saying this, but that health is so fundamental. Because actually, if you’re not healthy– or at least reasonably healthy– you can’t actually realise your rights. So there’s all sorts of ways of thinking about living a good life, but it is a very individual concept.

In the previous step, we explored our diverse understandings of a good life. In this step, we explore:

  • how disability is a dimension of human diversity;
  • how valuing human diversity and diverse ideas of living a good life can help to enable a good life for everyone;
  • how restrictive understandings of a good life and of what it means to be human can lead to the exclusion of people with diverse impairments from mainstream society.
In the above video, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Therese Sands, and Gwynnyth Llewellyn, who all work in the area of disability, discuss the various linkages between disability, diversity, social inclusion, and a good life. Rosemarie refers to the disability rights movement, which predominantly took place during the mid-20th century, as a “diversity initiative” which sought to increase the social inclusion of people with disabilities around the world. As she explains, in contrast to the social exclusion of people with disabilities in earlier periods, there was a growing awareness during this time that disability was simply another dimension of human diversity. This appreciation of disability as a dimension of diversity went hand-in-hand with a loosening of restrictions on the participation of people with disabilities and impairments in mainstream society.
While the disability rights movement has promoted a more inclusive approach to disability, importantly, it has also promoted the social model of disability. As Therese explains in the video, the social model makes an important distinction between disability and impairment: “impairment” refers to a health or medical condition, whereas “disability” is what emerges from the interaction between one’s impairment and the physical, attitudinal and organisational barriers in their society. We refer to the social model many times throughout this course and its sister course, Thinking through Disability. As Therese says, viewing disability within the context of the social model can help us to understand how social barriers to a good life might be dismantled and human diversity celebrated.
In addition to presenting disability as an aspect of human diversity, the presenters in the video highlight the diversity within the disabled community itself. As Rosemarie emphasises, nearly everyone will have a disability at some point in their lives, which makes disability a “capacious” (or big) diversity initiative. In saying this, she implies that disability is an umbrella term which captures a huge range of experiences of different impairments, disablement and contexts. As Gwynnyth goes on to explain, understanding this diversity among people with disabilities is essential if we are to understand the diverse conditions necessary for people with disabilities to live good lives.
While there are certain things that all three guest speakers agree on, they differ in their focus. Rosemarie is quite optimistic about how far we’ve come towards an inclusive society. She emphasises that disabled people who were previously excluded are now able to be “out” as people with disabilities in public. She uses the evolution of prosthetics which no longer mimic the fleshy leg as evidence of this. For Therese, who works directly in disability advocacy, there is a sense that while the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has promoted more inclusive understandings, there are still barriers and stigmas towards people with disabilities. Similarly, Gwynnyth suggests that rights are not all that is needed for people with disabilities to live a good life. She argues that health, for example, is also fundamental to living a good life.
The video introduces several other concepts that we will unpack more as we move through the course, such as ideas about human rights, advocacy and activism, and what it means to contribute. It also includes some key terms you might like to look up in the glossary, including the “social model of disability,” the “disabled people’s movement”, and “disability inclusion”.

Talking points

  • What is your understanding of the relationship between disability and human diversity?
  • How does understanding disability as a part of human diversity shift attitudes?
  • How can embracing human diversity help to enable a good life for all?

Expand your interests — In Step 1.12: AKASA case study – Part 1, we explore an organisation which aims to promote social inclusion for diverse women with disabilities in rural Sri Lanka. You can skip ahead to this step now, or wait to see it later in the week.

In the next step, we introduce Mel, your learner guide.

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Disability and a Good Life: Working with Disability

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