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Disability Rights and Wrongs

Feb 15, 2006
By Mark Woods

"To a casual thinker, if someone is blind, or has lost a limb, or has cerebral palsy, it's only humane to want to fix it, and if it can't be fixed it is a matter for regret.

But according to Gregor Wolbring, a bioethics professor in Canada who is part of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) which met over the weekend before the WCC Assembly - and who can speak from personal experience - it is not a simple matter of fixing the problem. There are, he believes, two different issues disabled people are facing.

One relates to how their body functions or their "impairment". Another relates to the disability that person actually experiences - "the social discrimination they face due to their impairment," he says.

"Both issues need different solutions. Some disabled people might want their impairment to be fixed so they can function like everyone else. However, many others rather want the disablement, the social discrimination to be fixed - some because they see their functioning as a variation and not as an impairment, others because the fix of the 'impairment' is economically less feasible than the elimination of the disablement.

"Often society is simply unwilling to eliminate the social discriminations. Indeed, society often generates new disabilities, new social discriminations, based on a person's functioning," he continues. "Even more, we generate more and more 'impaired' people by giving labels which medicalize more and more variations of human functioning which don't require that. For instance, someone is shy, so we say they have an anxiety disorder."

Furthermore we medicalize the very term "health", which he believes is a fundamentally retrograde step. "Years ago, the World Health Organization talked about health as consisting of physical, mental and social well-being," he says. "Although this definition is not perfect and could include other components such as spiritual wellbeing, today the term health increasingly is used in such a way that it's only about medical health and does not include social wellbeing any more."

This reconceptualization of health, he says, leads to the development that under "health" interventions, we only think about fixing the body of the person - we don't consider their social wellbeing. More than this, the increasing ability of new technologies to modify the human body beyond its normal capacities means the medicalization of the human body leads to the body being seen as just a step in evolution, and therefore defective."

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