Conventionally understood as the state of being physically and/or mentally different from some assumed ‘norm’ of human corporeal and/or psychological functioning, the term applies to people with an impairment that supposedly limits their ability to perform activities in the manner taken as ‘normal’ for a human being. Disability is often framed negatively, couched as ‘loss’ (e.g. of a limb or vision) or ‘lack’ (e.g. of mobility or reasoning skills), with scant attention paid to the experiences and aspirations of the people affected.
Proponents of the medical model of disability stress the apparently ‘damaged’ body or mind of an individual, and invite a personal narrative of ‘tragedy’ followed by ‘heroic’ efforts at self-adjustment (Golledge, 1997). Those of the social model stress not the individual but, rather, a wider society that fails to accommodate impairment, thus embracing a critical stance on the underlying ableism of a non-disabled society (Chouinard, 1997). The latter model, casting light on ‘disabling social and environmental barriers’ (Barnes and Mercer, 2004, p. 2; emphasis added) and advocating a critical ‘politics of access’, is inherently geographical in its alertness to the social and physical placing of disabled people within non-disabled settings. This model also examines both the political–economic forces impacting upon disability, as in the discriminatory dynamics of labour and housing markets, and the deeper roots of oppression occasioned by the stigmatization of ‘imperfect’ bodies (Hahn, 1989). It has itself been criticized for remaining too distanced from embodied realities, and thereby neglecting subjective experience as revealed in personal stories of pain, fatigue, rejection and simply ‘getting by’. Some theorists hence call for a third way, a biosocial model, allowing bodies and experiences into the picture while still retaining the critical sharpness of the social model (Watson, 2004).
These debates have played out within geographical research on disability (Hall, 2000b), which has become a recognizable sub-field exemplified in review articles and edited book collections (Park, Radford and Vickers, 1998; Butler and Parr, 1999). Early work considered the wheelchair-user or visually impaired person negotiating the environmental obstacle course of streets, curbs and buildings fronted by steps (Golledge, 1993; Vujakovic and Matthews, 1994). The focus upon ‘stairs’ was then supplemented by a concern for ‘stares’ (Pain, Burke, Fuller and Gough, 2001, p. 177), so that the issue becomes not just physical accessibility but also the extent to which disabled people are marked as different, fundamentally unwanted and ‘out of place’ in public space (Butler and Bowlby, 1997). The broader context of ‘disabling environments’ here attracts critique, implicating architects, planners and building control officers (designers and ‘the state’) for producing spaces that effectively ‘lock out’ disabled people (Imrie, 1996). The longer-term historical perspective reveals how modern capitalism has initiated an ongoing process of spatially marginalizing disabled people from meaningful economic roles and the normal rounds of social reproduction (Gleeson, 1999). Other geographical enquiries now use qualitative methods such as in-depth interviewing to excavate the experiential dimensions of being ‘out of place’, detecting how the axes of disability, class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality meld together in (the enduring of) exclusionary spaces.
Disability geography deals with both physical and mental impairments, where the latter entail both people with mental health problems (the ‘mentally ill’ in a medicalized vocabulary, including the ‘depressed’, ‘schizophrenic’ etc.) and people with learning or intellectual disabilities (the ‘mentally handicapped’ or ‘mentally retarded’ of now disfavoured vocabularies). There is a vibrant tradition of mental health geography (Smith and Giggs, 1988), exploring spatial–epidemiological subjects as well as looking at both the emergence of the ‘lunatic asylum’ and, more recently, processes of ‘deinstitutionalization’, ‘community care’ and the sites of everyday survival today for people with mental health problems (see contributions to Philo, 2000c). Less extensive is work on geographies of intellectual disability, although historical and contemporary studies can be identified (see contributions to Metzel and Philo, 2005). There is potential for building theoretical, substantive and ethico-political bridges between the different strains of disability geography tackling physical and mental difference, and perhaps too with parts of health geography exploring the circumstances of people with long-term chronic illness (Moss and Dyck, 2002).
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