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Disability Experience Shaped by Society Essay

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Updated: Jul 3rd, 2021


Disability is an impairment of a person’s physical or mental capabilities. It inevitably affects the daily lives of these individuals as they cannot perform specific tasks. However, society’s perception of this group as sick further impairs their position because it mitigates the opportunities for obtaining an education, having a job, and fulfilling other social roles. I will argue that the experience of disability is shaped by social structures and institutions along all three dimensions of disability, as outlined by Maybee, namely, the institutional, interpersonal, and personal bodies.

Background Information

The experience of disability is connected to social perception and the infrastructure that surrounds people with disabilities. The first element of this debate is the fact that people with a disability navigate their environment differently when compared to healthy individuals. The living environments, such as public spaces, are usually not adjusted according to their needs. Maybee (2019) introduces the example of a man struggling to get home because a taxi driver refuses to provide services to him, depicted in a movie.

This film then follows the man as he struggles to get home since only a minority of subway stations in New York have facilities for disabled people, making the other stations inaccessible. The conclusion of this film suggests that disabled people miss out on many opportunities and are unable to live their lives in a similar manner that healthy people can because some public spaces do not provide access for them.

Although disability studies is a relatively new academic domain, several models, and approaches to viewing the issues that disabled people overcome exist. Maybee (2019) distinguishes between the social models of disability and the institutional, social, and phenomenological dimensions. These domains suggest that from a social perspective, disabled people are often overlooked by society. Maybee (2019) presents examples of students in New York City, who struggle to commute using business because bus drivers often intentionally or unintentionally fail to notice them and help them get inside.

Moreover, these students cite the passengers who often roll their eyes and express their disappointment with the delays. One can argue that these attitudes pressure disabled people. Hence, both aspects, being able to physically access areas, and being accepted socially, affect the lives of disabled people in the United States.

A new and more progressive approach is to view disability as something constructed by society and not as a restriction of a person’s body, which is the new paradigm of disability. In this context, it is essential to distinguish the notion of impairment, which refers to a physical or biological problem that can put restrictions on an individual’s capabilities and disability, which is imposed by the society (Maybee 2019).

A model developed by Scheper-Hughes and Lock outlines the three levels of embodiment. The first level is the physical body of an individual, which in most Western cultures, is perceived as synonymous with the individual’s self. However, the second level or the social embodiment refers to the collective perception of a person. The fact that Western culture does not recognize the importance of this element in its core beliefs and values may explain the discrimination and neglect that people with physical impairments experience (Retief and Letsosa 2018, 8). In this context, the interpersonal relationships and social roles of individuals are essential for understanding the interactions and perceptions of disability in our society.

Interpersonal Bodies

Within society, people define their roles and the roles of others based on physical appearance. Maybee (2019) presents an example of mothers with disabilities who statistically are at a much higher risk of losing their children. This suggests a particular bias that leads individuals to believe that disability is a defining factor that can obstruct a person from performing activities perceived as usual for non-disabled people. This social power affects the experiences that disabled people have. As with an example of disabled mothers, Maybee (2019) argues that these women often feel that they are tenuous. Inevitably, this affects them and their motherhood as they see and understand how society treats them and how it perceives their ability to be a mother to their children.

The external view of a person’s body allows societies, especially in the West, to make judgments about a disabled person’s ability to have different roles. In this context, it is essential to understand the definition of ableism or the control that the non-disabled have over the disabled people (Maybee 2019). Viewing disability as a socially constructed concept provides insight into the attitudes and perceptions of disabled people.

While the physical element, such as wheelchair accessibility, are essential, the fact that society views disabled people as such that cannot perform specific actions or lack something shapes their opportunities. Maybee (2019) explains this in the following manner – “many of the experiences that disabled people have are not caused by their bodies, but by societies’ exclusion, prejudice and discrimination” (p. 39). The author points to the active exclusion by the society that, in fact, is the central aspect of the disablement since these people are unable to access the same opportunities as others.

Personal Bodies

This element refers to the inner experience of disability and the ways in which it affects these people’s lives. Maybee (2019), despite this factor being an internal experience of a person, it is also affected by society. The notion of personal bodies encompasses how a person feels their own body. The society assigned the disabled people with the role of sick individuals, unable to work, care for their children, and perform day-to-day tasks (Maybee 2019). The institutional body or the way society controls the behavior of individuals is also crucial in this context. This element develops and enforces policies that can be crucial for enabling the inclusion of people with impairments in our society. Therefore, the way people with disabilities view themselves is affected by the existing social norms.

Frameworks and concepts that outline the principles of caring for people with disabilities and providing the same opportunities to obtain an education, work, and be socially active have to consider the current social attitudes. Maybee (2019) argues that there are two ways of experiencing disability as an experience from the inside and the outside. The first principle that Maybee (2019) outlines is that disability studies should use the perspective of disabled people when developing theories and concepts. Their perspective and experience can guide scholars when examining the social aspects of disability.

For example, as displayed in the movies about New York city discussed at the beginning of this paper, the single aspect of day-to-day transportation using a subway or taxi, which is not an issue for healthy individuals, can be a severe problem for the disabled. Therefore, while it is essential to consider the perspective of people with disabilities, one should understand that their personal body experiences are affected by the existing societal attitudes.

Institutional Bodies

The concept of institutional bodies refers to the government and non-governmental institutions, such as healthcare facilities or businesses, that have an established policy of treating disabled people. The notion of ostracism refers to the practices of inclusion or exclusion of a person from the group if the majority of the members believe that such practice is justified. Some societies use this practice as part of their institutional embodiment.

Maybee (2019) cites research by Merzer of disability practices and work engagement in the Middle Ages. Based on historical records, people who had vision impairments or other issues were actively engaged in the workforce, working in bakeries or knitting and selling the outputs. When contrasting this evidence with today’s approach to treating disabled people and providing them work opportunities, one can argue that the attitudes have changed, and there are not many possibilities for individuals with a disability to find decent work.

Work is not only a means of earning a leaving, but it is also the way to interact with others and engage with people outside a person’s home. Merzer’s analysis suggests that this is, in fact, a shift in attitude since, during the Middle Ages, there was an expectation that al people should work (Maybee 2019). The main issue of the disability perception of the materialist model. In this context, it is crucial to understand the definition of ableism or the control that the non-disabled have over the disabled people (Maybee 2019). Therefore, in the past specifics of the work and the duties were adjusted depending on the person’s physical capabilities.

During the Middle Ages, disabilities did not impair a person’s opportunity to work and earn a living. The main idea was that the work type should be tailored to the individual’s capabilities (Maybee 2019). Hence, if a man could not become a warrior, he would work with women or become an advisor. One can argue that a significant shift in a society’s perception of disability occurred since the Middle Ages since, in the modern era, a disability diagnosis often leads to exclusion from the workforce. According to Maybee (2019), disability is a “social category that sorts people into groups,” which is highlighted by the capitalist wag market.

In this quote, the author suggests that current views on disability define a person’s value by examining his or her ability to work and earn money. At the same time, the Capitalist institutions exclude the disabled by not providing them opportunities for work. Hence, from the perspective of Capitalist companies, the disabled are distinguished from others as people who cannot work, which leads to a cycle of exclusion.

The gap between the number of non-disabled people who have a full-time job and disabled people who work is significant. According to Maybee, in July 2018, only 20.4% of people with disabilities were employed, which only accounts for the disabled people eligible to work. The main reasons that result in such low rates are connected to the changes in viewing the labor value. In a Capitalist society, the worker’s productivity is the main factor that determines whether they can be hired or not.

The standardized practices used in factories also excluded disabled people from workplaces. Meeting the requirements of products developed for non-disabled individuals is usually impossible for people with disabilities. The primary outcomes of the labor wage market exclusion are poverty. Therefore, the changes in the labor market and the transformation of the state’s economic activity led to a full exclusion of disabled people because they cannot work meeting the same requirements and conditions as non-disabled people.


Several counterarguments exist that oppose the perception of disability as a notion shaped by society. For example, in contrast with an opinion regarding the viewpoints on disability, in today’s society, these individuals receive financial aid from the government. Hence, should not have to work together with healthy individuals. However, this approach is flawed because, as outlined by Maybee (2019), the social interactions and ability to be engaged in a day to day life with others and not being excluded from many opportunities that the healthy individuals have is the key. Such elements of personal development as self-actualization cannot be achieved if a person is not interacting with others or working to achieve his or her goals.

The contrarguments also refer to the need for addressing disability from the perspective of personal and interpersonal bodies, since these elements do not have a direct impact on the access that disabled people. However, this paper outlines how the interactions with others and the outside world are both critical and necessary for the disabled. The view that society has of these people affects their social roles, for instance, as mothers, and their access to public places, as with the subway example.


Overall, this paper argues that social structures and institutions shape the experience of disability. The three levels of embodiment outlined by Scheper-Hughes and Lock are the physical or self-body, social or collective, and institutional. This paper argues that society developed specific roles for the individuals, created institutions and structures that allow the non-disabled control the lives of disabled people, and imposed materialism when evaluating their capabilities and ability to work.


Maybee, Julie. 2019. “Chapter One Disability and Capitalism.” In Making and Unmaking Disability: The Three-Body Approach, 1-38. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

—. 2019. “Introduction and Theoretical Overview.” In Making and Unmaking Disability: The Three-Body Approach, 1-38. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

—. 2019. “Chapter Two. A New Structure of Attitudes: Normalcy, Eugenics, the Ugly Laws and Segregation.” In Making and Unmaking Disability: The Three-Body Approach, 57-93. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

—. 2019. “Chapter Three: The Experience of the Socially Defined Body.” In Making and Unmaking Disability: The Three-Body Approach, 102-139. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Retief, Marno, and Rantoa Letšosa. 2018. “Models Of Disability: A Brief Overview”. HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 74 (1):1-10.

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