The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disabled person as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” The Code of Federal Regulations for Social Security defines disability as “the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” Merriam-Webster defines disability as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions.”
These definitions of disability have a common theme: They all frame disability as a medical issue or a technical one in terms of legal compliance, effectively foreclosing any other discussion of the social power, identity, or experiences that a disabled person can have. You are your audiograms and you are your ophthalmic exams and you are your doctor’s notes and you are your diagnoses and you are living with a disability instead of thriving with a disability. This approach to disability as a problem that needs to be fixed is typified by disability studies scholars as the medical model of disability theory.
In contrast, the social model rejects the idea that disability is an individual impairment that limits you. It juxtaposes impairment — a word present in all of the definitions I listed above — and disability, distinguishing the latter as a disadvantage that stems from a lack of fit between a person and their social environment. The main disadvantage I experience as a disabled person doesn’t stem directly from my hearing loss, but rather from my unwelcome reception in terms of how institutional norms, physical structures, and social attitudes exclude and disparage me.
This unwelcome reception was most obvious in the transition from the legally mandated supportive infrastructure of the K-12 system to the labor-intensive college accommodations process. Inadequate disability services, untrained and sometimes hostile faculty and staff, and social stigma all reinforce gatekeepng structures in higher education, but the root of the problem originates long before college. The trajectory of my academic career depended on the disability label I was assigned in K-12 schooling, on my ability to get a medical diagnosis and afford assistive listening devices, on the privilege I hold with the comparative extent to which I am able-bodied, and on the ability of my school systems to provide support that wasn’t just compliant with my Individualized Education Plan but also meaningfully reinforced my independence and personhood. My privileges and my disadvantages continue to inform one another as a college student, yet the institutions that can grant and deny accommodations treat disability as a monolith.
The dynamics of disability intersect with race, class, and gender. Higher education frames accessibility measures through the lens of the medical model rather than acknowledging disability as an identity accompanied by social struggles beyond the classroom. This isn’t just a problem for supporting disabled students; it also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of disability. Here at the College, accommodations are provided on the basis of documented disability, which leaves those who can’t get diagnoses stuck attempting to navigate academic and social life without any form of institutional support. Even in my experience with a documented disability, the process of verifying these documents operates on the assumption I have a single, consistent care provider to contact for a disability determination letter. For others, college might be a struggle between balancing academic responsibilities while navigating the poor access, quality, and affordability of medical care in a system built on exclusion and ableism.
Furthermore, the overreliance on diagnoses is intrinsically a microaggression and assumes disability isn’t part of diversity. The medical model distills disability into six categories, ignoring the spectrum on which disability can be temporary or permanent, range from hardly noticeable to completely incapacitating, and coexist with other unrelated disabilities. It seems like a no-brainer to say people with disabilities don’t look alike, don’t always have the same symptoms even when we have the same medical conditions, and can’t be easily categorized. Why, then, do accessibility measures so often fall into a onesize-fits-most catch-all? Why is it OK for institutions to treat disabled individuals like they don’t exist if they don’t present a diagnosis?
Doing disability all day long is an exhausting process, and I don’t mean the disability itself — I can deal with that. It’s the mental, physical, and emotional labor of dealing with a world designed to exclude me as well as other people’s misguided preconceptions about and blatant discrimination toward disabled people. The fact elevators are hidden away in Wachenheim Science Center and no intention is put into universal design of staircases and hallways is a reminder that these spaces do not prioritize disabled people. The policing of physical access when it comes to the use of wheelchair ramps and handicap parking, especially for semi-ambulatory students, encourages an unfair double standard of being “too disabled but not disabled enough.” And, most frustratingly, the reliance on diagnoses to prove your need for accommodations perpetuates a fixation on the medical model that is ultimately harmful to the people it is designed to help.
Take the time as you walk to class to examine the environment around you and gauge if the route you take would be accessible if you were in a wheelchair, or had chronic pain, or had leg weakness that prevented you from using stairs or prolonged standing, or couldn’t tolerate the cold for long periods of time. Would you be able to get to class on time? Could you wait in line for Mission brunch for 30 minutes or easily make a trip to get groceries?
Accommodations help level the playing field for disabled people in a system that is fundamentally unequal. It’s time we start acknowledging disabled people for their personhood, not for their diagnoses and the visibility of their impairments.
Ari Quasney ’25 is from Munster, Ind.