CODI: Cornucopia of Disability Information

The Role of the Environment in Determining Disability Status

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The Role of the Environment in Determining Disability Status


When the Chairman of Disabled People International was asked to comment on the conceptual framework underlying the ICIDH, he provided the following statement [Enns, 1989]:

"Whereas disability has too long been viewed as a problem of the individual and not the relationship between an individual and his/her environment, it is necessary to distinguish between:

a. disability as the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental, or sensory impairments; and

b. handicap as the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barrierrs"

An understanding of the role of the environment (the extent to which physical and social barriers exist) is critical to any attempt to define disability or handicap [McNeil, 1991b].

Using Nagi's framework, impairments that lead to functional limitations or disabilities under one set of environmental conditions need not lead to functional limitations or disabilities under another set. An almost universal example of an enabling environmental factor that reduces the effect of impairments is corrective lenses. Other examples of enabling environmental factors include wheelchairs, electric scooters, elevators, lifts, ramps, and telecommunication relay services.

The SIPP disability questions do not explicitly address the issues of physical and social barriers. There are no specific questions about barriers within the home, community, school, or workplace; there are no specific questions about the accessibility of transportation systems or other services within the community; and there are no specific questions about experiences with discrimination. There is a need to develop household survey questions that explicitly address the issues of physical and social barriers. There is a hope that this process will be moved forward by the work currently being done by the Quebec Committee on the ICIDH on improving the "handicap" portion of the ICIDH [Fougeyrollas].

The fact that survey questions do not explicitly address the issues of physical and social barriers does not mean that survey results cannot be used to measure changes in those barriers. If, over a period of years, we learn that the relative employment rate and earnings of persons who use wheelchairs has risen, then we can infer that there has been some reduction in barriers. An important element that will be missing is a measure of where in the process the barrier reduction(s) occurred.

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