What is Disability

Conceptualizing Disability 

Models of disability can be helpful in providing a framework for understanding society's perceptions and actions toward individual differences in ability. The development of these models provides us with a continuum that reflects changing social attitudes to disability.  

Two of the most common models of disability are the Medical and Social Models of disability.

Since the mid-19th century, disability has been viewed through the lens of the Medical Model. The Medical Model views disability as resulting from an individual person's physical or mental limitations and is not connected to the person's social or physical environments. The Medical Model focuses on individual "deficits,"  finding a "cure," or making a person more "normal" so they fit in to existing environments or systems. 

Rooted in the disability rights movement of the 1970s, the Social Model views disability as a consequence of environmental, social, and attitudinal barriers that may prevent people from fully participating in society. This view asserts that the problems people with disabilities face are systemically and socially created rather than an inherent part of their disability. In taking this approach to disability in higher education, we strive to remove systemic barriers and make changes to create more accessible learning environments for all students. 

Medical model social model
Disability is a deficiency or abnormality Disability is a difference
The remedy for disability-related problems is cure or normalization of the individual  The remedy for disability-related problems is a change in the interaction between the individual and society 
The agent of remedy is the professional who affects the arrangements between the individual and society 

The agent of remedy can be the individual, an advocate, or anyone who affects the arrangements between the individual and society 

Legal Foundations for Disability Access

The university community shares a collective responsibility to facilitate access and inclusion for students with disabilities.  The Accessible Education Center is the office designated to determine eligibility and supports the provision of accommodations. The support of university students is guided by the legal foundations of federal laws.

Legal Definition of Disability 

A person meets the legal definition of having a disability if they: 

  • Have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning, working, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating. A major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, such as normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. 

  • Have a record of such conditions. 

  • Or, are regarded as having such an impairment (perceived by others to have a disability). 

Relevant Laws 

The law protects people with disabilities from discrimination. Most relevant to the college environment are two specific laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 the Rehabilitation Act.  

Discrimination is prohibited against students with disabilities who are otherwise qualified, and when appropriate reasonable accommodations must be provided. A student who has a disability is considered otherwise qualified if academic and technical standards for admission and participation in the program are met. 

When a student with a disability is accepted into the university or specific program, that student has demonstrated that they are a qualified individual. The university is then required to remove barriers impacting access to programs, activities, and services. 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act  Americans with Disabilities Act 

In 1973, Congress passed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability (29 U.S.C. Section 794). It states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. . . .”  

The Office of Civil Rights in the U. S. Department of Education enforces regulations implementing Section 504 with respect to programs and activities that receive federal funding.

Loss of federal funds to the institution, including research grants and student financial aid, can be an outcome of Section 504 violation. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is the civil rights law designed to protect individuals from discrimination based on disability. The ADA extends civil rights protection for people with disabilities to employment in the private sector, transportation, public accommodations, services provided by state and local government, and telecommunication relay services. 

 ADA and subsequent amendments broadened the essential concepts of Section 504 and included additional areas such as private employers, public accommodations (e.g., museums, theaters, restaurants, motels), and the telephone relay system for the Deaf. Under Title II of the ADA, the responsibility of public entities, such as state and local government, was strengthened to protect qualified students with disabilities from being discriminated against.