In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disabilities

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Edited Works
  • Journals
  • Definitions
  • Cultural and Ethnic Background
  • Mental Health and Disability (Psychopathology)
  • Assessment
  • Communication
  • Technical Aids and Systems
  • Physical Disabilities
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Sensory Disabilities
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder
  • Acquired and Progressive Disabilities

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Education Disabilities
Louise Boettcher, Jesper Dammeyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0090


Disability is a cross-disciplinary field, combining psychological, medical, social, technical, and philosophical sciences. Disability concerns both general issues across different types of disability and topics specific to particular types of disability. The most influential definition of disability originates from the World Health Organization (WHO), which defines disability, as an umbrella term, as a complex phenomenon reflecting the interaction between the individual’s body functions and the society around the individual. The current WHO definition incorporates ideas from two opposing models of disability: The medical model focuses on disability as the result of one or more physical defects of the individual body. Disabilities are seen as caused mainly by these impairments; to understand and research disability, the medical model divides the general area of disability according to the specific impairments such as physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these disabilities. An impairment/disability may be congenital or acquired during life. The different subgroups of disabilities are associated with different types of problems, support, and interventions, and acknowledgement is given to the variation among individuals with disabilities due to type and severity of the disability. Individual health care, medical surgeries, physiotherapy, aids, and special educational arrangements are perceived as ways to ameliorate or manage the defect. The other model, the social model, was developed in opposition to the medical model, at first in Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has been disseminated globally since then. The central idea is that the main contributory factor to disability is not the physical impairment but that society fails to take individual differences into account. Critique of both approaches has given rise to a family of “third ways” or middle ground theories. Their aim is to express the relation between physical conditions and impairments and the challenges that emerge from life in a society mainly built for the able bodied. One of these theories is the chronic illness approach, but other models and theories have been developed to capture the complexities of life and development with a disability. Within the cultural-historical tradition, Lew S. Vygotsky (b. 1896–d. 1934) conceptualized a dialectical approach to disability still relevant to disability studies today. Finally, the disability studies movement is an important new critical perspective that reflects the medical, social, and minority rights models by celebrating an interdisciplinary focus including history, literature, social policy, and law.

Textbooks and Edited Works

Several textbooks and edited works present and discuss disability using social, political, and philosophical sciences. Barnes and Mercer 2010; Edwards 2005; and Gustavsson, et al. 2005 review and discuss current disability policies and societal practices from critical sociological perspectives and provide analyses of how Western society, politics, public service, and welfare systems stigmatize, support, or suppress people with disabilities. Gustavsson, et al. 2005 relates to the Nordic countries. Edwards 2005 and Barnes and Mercer 2010 both function in a British context; Edwards 2005 focuses on philosophical perspectives, while Barnes and Mercer 2010 offers a viewpoint from social sciences. All three books provide excellent introductions. Barnes and Mercer 2006 offers more extensive and cutting-edge perspectives of critical disability research and may be useful for readers looking for an introduction to controversies within the field. Mitchell 2008 summarizes empirical findings and evidence-based practice and is a practical guide to teachers or other professionals in schools or clinical practices. Lewis 2003 is a well-written introduction to mainstream developmental and neuropsychological conceptualization.

  • Barnes, Colin, and Geof Mercer, eds. 2006. Exploring the divide: Illness and disability. Leeds, UK: Disability.

    Organized around significant contributors with differing approaches to the role of impairment, chronic illness, and the body in relation to the social model of disability. This book provides an interesting and lively introduction to and inspiration for further reflections on controversies within the field of disability research.

  • Barnes, Colin, and Geof Mercer. 2010. Exploring disability. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    A critical and wide-ranging review of key issues in the social science of disability. Disability politics and sociological approaches to disability is the focus of the book. It is a widely used introduction to disability studies in the social sciences.

  • Edwards, Steven D. 2005. Disability: Definitions, value and identity. Oxford: Radcliffe.

    Provides a philosophical perspective on disability by examining disability issues through a combination of critical review, discussion, and narrative theory. An up-to-date work using a variety of theoretical perspectives to understand disability in modern societies. Used by policy makers.

  • Gustavsson, Anders, Johans Sandvin, Rannveig Traustadóttir, and Jan Tøssebro, eds. 2005. Resistance, reflection and change: Nordic disability research. Lund, Sweden: Studentlitteratur.

    Collects contributions from many different researchers and topics in Nordic disability research. Particularly interesting for its analyses of how social policies come to function in practice and its close-up critical studies of life as a disabled person within the Nordic welfare systems.

  • Lewis, Vicky. 2003. Development and disability. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A comprehensive textbook that reviews experimental research on child disabilities in accordance with mainstream developmental and neuropsychological conceptualization. Describes typical developmental difficulties associated with specific types of disability, incidence of problems, and possible causal factors of difficulties.

  • Mitchell, David. 2008. What really works in special and inclusive education? Using evidence based strategies. New York: Routledge.

    The book reviews empirical findings of what works and gives educators working with learners with special educational needs a range of strategies that they can implement right away in the classroom. Inclusion strategies and peer tutoring are some of the issues.

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