PERSPECTIVES | The problem with the disability hierarchy

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017
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One barrier to full inclusion for people with disabilities is the existence of the often unspoken disability hierarchy. The disability hierarchy perpetuates the notion that some disabled people “are more acceptable than others in our culture,” and it can be internalized and used by people with disabilities, as well as those without.

Certain language used to describe people with disabilities can also perpetuate this hierarchy; for instance, when a person uses a wheelchair and he or she (or others) insist that “his mind is fine,” or when parents refer to their children with autism as “high” or “low” functioning. These excuses (“I’m disabled in this way, but not that way”) imply that certain disabilities are more acceptable and that people with disabilities must compensate in some way.

The hierarchy of disability also fuels the concept of “ableism.” Ableism may rank people with physical disabilities as more disabled than people with invisible disabilities, and those with more significant cognitive impairments above others. People also may assume that some people with disabilities “suffer” more or “have it worse” than others. For decades, people in the disability movement have been slow to acknowledge the existence of the disability hierarchy, which may have contributed to impeding the movement as a whole.

Furthermore, the celebration of disabled people who “overcame” their disability implies they are “better” than the people with disabilities who have not defied all medical odds. It also implies both that disabilities need to be fixed and that these individuals are somehow better than disabled people who embrace their disability identity.

Disability is natural and part of a person’s whole identity, but it does not necessarily define a person. As we celebrate the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we keep in mind that a positive step toward an inclusive society will be when all people — disabled and non-disabled — can begin to respect each other for exactly who they are.