The illusion of disability

It is human nature to look for things that are not present. We tend to see what we do not have instead of what we do have. It is also within societal norms to analyse situations, people and phenomena on what is lacking instead of what is present. Most of us have experienced some form of discrimination due to this type of thinking. You are either too young, too old, the wrong ethnic group, social class or seen as a liability due to your disability.

In academia, many theorists such as Amartya Sen’s Capability approach and the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) have argued for looking at what is present within a persons (i.e. their capabilities or functionings) and how society plays a role in either enabling or disabling a person in participating in everyday life. This argues that a person’s inability to participate in everyday activities are not solely influenced by their medical condition. The inclusion of persons with disabilities in different sectors such as education and employment have been a priority worldwide. The initiatives taken by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and supporting organisations from around the world have lead to many breakthroughs in transforming a more inclusive society.

However, due to our inherent way of thinking about what is absent instead of what is present, this has been a challenge still. Although it is important to acknowledge change in policies for the inclusion of persons with disabilities, the implementation thereof now needs to be addressed. Policies are only on paper and for real transformation to happen, people and society’s way of thinking also need to change. Many role players such as organisations and policy makers have lobbied for including persons with disabilities but they cannot enforce change by themselves and need the assistance of persons like you and me.

That being said, it would require us to go against our inherent way of thinking on what is absent, rather than on what is present. On this note, we refer to the image below of an optical illusion that has been widely used. We are all familiar with optical illusions. As children, we often played with optical illusions, which many scientists have argued develops our brain’s perception. At first glance an optical illusion shows you one image but upon closer inspection one could see another image, sometimes even more beautiful than the one seen at first glance. This way of looking at one image from a different angle in order to uncover another image also needs to happen within the transformation of disability inclusion.


When looking at how disability is sometimes still assessed within different sectors where inherent thinking of absenteeism is present, often companies looks at what it would cost them (i.e. what they will lose) to include a person with a disability rather than focusing on how this inclusion could contribute to the company (i.e. what would be gained). Educational institutions are also sometimes guilty of this when they first think towards cost of inclusion rather than what would be gained.

Building onto this argument, a practical example could be given. If an accountant falls and breaks his/her arm, does that consequentially impact his/her ability to fulfill his/her role as an accountant? Most people will argue “No, he/she would be able to adapt and still fulfill his/her role as required”. If, within the same company, an accountant applies for a position but he/she is in a wheelchair, would that consequentially impact his/her ability to fulfill his/her role as an accountant? Now, the answer often does not come so easy with many people. Suddenly the ability to adapt to fulfill the role required does not seem so possible. This is but one example to consider but there are many more like this, within different sectors and different scenarios.

As stated before, it is human nature to look for what is absent rather than what is present but for true transformation of inclusion of persons with disabilities to succeed, we need to rethink our own way of thinking by starting to focus on what is present and not what is absent. Referring back to the image of optical illusion used earlier, when we change our way of thinking about the ability within a person rather than the disability, we might just be able to uncover an image that is more beautiful than the one we saw first.

Photo credit: World For All Campaign (Photographer Amol Jadhav)

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