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Deciphering Disability

Joseph Bell

As a writing specialist at Mitchell College, I am constantly mindful of our mission statement, which expresses our commitment as educators to prepare students “to contribute to an ever-changing world.” The goal is an honorable one. It involves numerous challenges, among them, the necessity of faculty, specialists and the students themselves to cope with an ever-changing world of definitions of learning disability. 

Numerous revisions to the term “disability” (by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association and the United States Congress) have left many students confused about their own status. No doubt many educational professionals on our campus and elsewhere experience the same puzzlement.

A bit of history will, hopefully, help us navigate through the mist. Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 with the intention of providing “a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” The law recognized that such individuals have a right to participate in all aspects of society and should not be held back because of prejudices or societal or institutional barriers. 

In 2008, Congress recognized that the expectation—the ADA would be “interpreted consistently with how courts had applied the definition of a handicapped individual under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973”—was unfulfilled. 

In the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush, Congress cited several Supreme Court cases that had narrowed “the broad scope of protection intended to be afforded by the ADA.” 

The courts were generally persuaded by employers when ADA cases went before the bench. In 2004, employers won an astonishing 97 percent of ADA discrimination lawsuits. The Amendments Act sought to redefine the terrain. 

Congressman Steny Hoyer (Democrat from Maryland), who sponsored the bill, said, “The ADA made clear that a disability need not be disabling, and allowed millions of Americans with disabilities to take advantage of all the opportunities this country has to offer. . . . In a series of narrow—and in my view, mistaken—rulings, the courts have chipped away at our original intent.” 

It is of no small interest that Congress apparently passed the original legislation convinced that “a disability need not be disabling.” That guarantees a broad mandate for the ADA.

Aware of court cases that lawmakers determined unduly limited the number of individuals who were able to prove they had a disability, Congress widened the scope of what is to be considered a “disability.” The law now defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and those activities “include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working.” 

The law attempts to set clear guidelines by noting that “an impairment that limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability,” and that the assessment of a disability is to be made “without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as medication, medical supplies . . . assistive technology” or other accommodations. 

There are those who applaud congressional action to ensure the ADA will work as originally intended. Of course, there are also those who suggest the law is now too broad. 

Richard Alaniz, an attorney who has served at the U.S. Department of Labor, has written that employers should now assume “everyone who claims a disability is going to be considered disabled.”

Disability issues are complex and ever-changing, and this has been the case for policymakers and health care and educational professionals for a long time. The American Psychiatric Association has revised the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which now includes asperger’s disorder under the autism spectrum disorder label. How was it suddenly decided to place asperger’s in the autism column. Might the medical professionals eventually determine “we were wrong” and return things to where they were? 

Reasonable people who dwell outside the “circle of experts” will ask, “If those who pass the laws discover unintended consequences that must be adjusted, if attorneys who study these issues are in disagreement, and if medical professionals are continually revisiting and revising their definitions, how can the rest of us hope to keep pace?” 

The answer for those of us who work in the educational field is to keep the channels of communication among us all as open as possible. Let us not be persuaded to shy away from complicated and controversial issues for fear of appearing “out of the loop” or “unaware” or for fear of “asking the wrong question.” We are delighted when our students are engaged and ask questions, and we should expect no less of ourselves. The fact is, the experts—the lawmakers, the scientists and members of the legal profession—are not unanimous in their assessment of the field of disabilities. That alone should convince us that there are questions yet to be asked and answered, and that there is knowledge yet to be unearthed. 

Galileo once remarked, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” 

We do not move closer to the truth by shying away from questions that appear along the path to that destination. 

Joseph Bell is a Writing Specialist at Mitchell College in New London, Connecticut.

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