Disability – Culture and Identity

Lesson objectiveTo explore disability in relation to culture and identity.
Lesson outcomes• Compare disability to gender, sexuality, social class, nationality and age.
• Assess to what extent disability is still relevant today.
• Explain the characteristics of different disabilities in relation to culture and identity.


An impairment is not the same as a disability. Shakespeare (1998) makes clear that an impairment is a loss or limitation of functioning mind, or body. On the other hand, a disability is where this impairment impacts an individual on a day to day basis and is long term. Let’s look at the word disability (Dis) meaning absent of and (ability) meaning to do things or to succeed. We can also see from this that the word disability has negative connotations from the beginning.

Like most identities, disability is socially constructed and wholly depends on an individual’s ability to succeed in society and its environment. Factors include cultural, economic, environmental barriers.

Disability, socialisation and stereotyping

The family – Norms and values are passed down from family member to family member and therefore generation to generation. As society moves forward with equality, sometimes family hinders this process through socialisation.

Education – Schools teach individuals with disabilities as being equal members of society. That aid, there is little funding for schools to ensure this within the education system. Many disabled students find that they gain more support going to a specialised disability school than they would in mainstream. This causes segregation and therefore shows to students that in fact, individuals who are disabled cannot operate equally in society.

Media – Barnes (1992) suggests that media stereotypes negatively disabled people. It is rare to see the media show disability as a social norm and instead show this as a burden on society. Check out this video here and here of “Little Britain”.

A stigmatised identity

Social Action Theorists suggest that a disabled person has a ‘spoiled’ identity. Goffman calls this impression management whereby individuals are seen as being disabled more than anything else. This is called a stigma and can often lead to a master status being created e.g. speaking loudly and slowly for someone hard of hearing.


Globalisation has allowed us to understand disability more clearly since it has increased the opportunity to explore different types.

It has also allowed disabled people to become more connected with other individuals e.g. getting treatment in America etc.

A crisis of identity.

  • To see statistics about disability, please see this website. 

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