Key Concepts in the Disability Community

A woman using a wheelchair plays tennisThese concepts and terms may be helpful when writing about people with disabilities.

Accessible describes the nature of accommodations for people who have a disability. Say anaccessible parking space rather than handicapped parking or disabled restroom. Accessible also describes products and services for people with vision or hearing disabilities, such as when a hospital provides patient education materials in large print or a university adds captions to a recruitment video.Handicapped has negative connotations because it suggests that obstacles to participation are in the person rather than in the environment.

Advocacy is an active process designed to make institutions and social and political systems more responsive to the civil rights, needs and choices of individuals. Through individual and group advocacy, people with disabilities can communicate their rights under various civil rights laws and participate in decision-making that affects them.

Consumer is the term used by many in the disability community to refer to someone with a disability. The civil rights movement in the U.S. inspired the independent living movement of the 1970s, which maintained that people with disabilities are consumersof assistive services and have a responsibility to evaluate and control those services. On a similar note, some people prefer to be described by what they use, such as wheelchair user, ventilator user or mental health service user.

Independent living (IL) refers to the philosophy that people with disabilities should be able to make decisions that affect their own lives. IL also refers to a civil rights movement that advocates for equal participation in community life and a service system made up of centers for independent living. These nonresidential resource centers are run by and for people with disabilities, as well as for the benefit of the entire community. Their core services include advocacy, information and referral, independent living skills training, peer counseling and, most recently, de-institutionalization of people with disabilities.

Inclusion is perhaps best known for its role in public school programs, though the concept has a wider significance. It means that people with disabilities are considered full citizens, with equal opportunity to participate in community life. As the largest minority in the U.S., people with disabilities should also be included in conversations about diversity.

The medical model is an attitude and practice that regards disability as a defect or sickness that must be cured or normalized through medical intervention. People in the disability community prefer the social or independent living model which regards disability as a neutral difference between people – and acknowledges that people with disabilities can be healthy. In the social model, problems related to disability are caused by the interaction between the individual and the environment rather than the individual’s disability itself. These problems can be remedied by changing social attitudes, physical environments, public policies, and other barriers to full participation.


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