Business Resources and Services from Disability Awareness Author / Speaker Gary Karp

Thoughts on Disability Culture

What Exactly Is a Disability?

A wheelchair user encounters stepsWhat a disability is, well, depends.

On a lot of things. It can mean so many things, it's almost useless as a concept anymore. Disability has come to mean so many things that it's almost meaningless.

What we're really talking about here is a "feature" of a person that may or may not have an impact on what they are doing at a given time. Disability is context sensitive. It's not a disability until it actually limits somebody. A wheelchair user is not disabled until they encounter steps with no other options.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as something that "limits one or more life activities." That's pretty broad, although there is some guidance about what constitues a "life activity." Being able to wash and dress and feed yourself qualify. Paralysis, blindness, deafness, loss of a limb – all things that qualify someone as having a disability under the law.

But we're not concerned with the law in this particular discussion. We're concerned with whether or not a person with certain characteristics which might qualify as a disability is able to perform the essential tasks of a job. That's what you care about in business, right?

This is exactly why a current understanding of disability in workplace culture is so critical.

The way people in the workplace think about disability will influence whether they believe that a candidate can perform, whether an existing employee can stay at or return to work, or whether they themselves have the capacity to adapt and continue to strive for their potential in the workplace and their lives. If a hiring manager is viewing a candidate through the old lens, then the organization might well miss out on an exceptional employee.


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