Disability: Western Theories


The theoretical underpinnings of conventional, individualistic medical conceptions of disability have in recent decades been challenged by various socio‐political approaches rooted in the collective experiences of disabled people and their organisations. Disability studies has developed both within and outside the academy primarily through an analysis of the structures and practices that marginalise disabled people in society. In recent decades theoretical approaches have become wider and among others these now encompass materialism, cultural studies, poststructuralism, feminism and phenomenology. Recent debates have centred on the body, the degree to which it should be a focus for social investigation and how it should be theorised. All of this has significant implications for proponents of genetic interventions as solutions to the problem of disability.

Key Concepts:

  • Individual, medical conceptions of disability have been challenged by socio‐political approaches.

  • Theoretical understandings of disablement have been given impetus by increasing evidence of social causes and implications.

  • Western theories of disability are characterised by increasing diversity of approaches, including materialist, cultural and poststructuralist.

  • Scientific understandings of disability have profound implications for life opportunities and situations of disabled people.

Keywords: disability; disablement; illness; impairment; oppression


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Further Reading

Barnes C and Mercer G (2010) Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Butler R and Parr H (1999) Mind and Body Spaces: Geographies of Illness, Impairment and Disability. London: Routledge.

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Oliver M (2009) Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice, 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pothier D and Devlin R (2006) Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy and Law. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.

Russell M (1998) Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, Monroe. Maine: Common Courage Press.

Stiker HJ (1998) A History of Disability. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

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Woodin, Sarah L(May 2012) Disability: Western Theories. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005213.pub2]