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Who is the person with a disability?

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Therapeutic Recreation 2nd Edition PDF by Terry Long & Terry Robertson.

By Mary Ann Devine, Jessie L. Bennett

Over the years, people with disabilities have been stereotyped as limited in potential. This generalization is based on a comparison of them with people who do not have the same characteristic. Labels drive such stereotypes, and these labels can originate from several sources, some of which were originally intended for good. Labels referring to disabilities have been medically based, such as the labeling of a person as blind because he or she cannot see. Labels can be socially based. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may be assumed to be disabled in ways that exceed his or her actual impairments. Labels can even be legally based and are often required for the provision of supportive services in school and recreation. For example, to qualify for certain special education services, a child must fall into specific diagnostic categories, such as autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Regardless of the mechanisms through which a person is labeled, the person with a disability is someone who has a limitation in some aspect of his or her functioning according to our social norms.


All people tend to be identified by and associated with characteristics that really are only superficial indicators of who they are. Society worships celebrities based solely on public personas that are crafted by Hollywood moguls and music industry executives. Likewise, society has a history of ridiculing and ostracizing those who do not meet these unrealistic standards. This superficial idea of perfection leads to judgmental standards built on trivial characteristics that have no relationship to the essence of a person. The labeling of people, and the stereotypical assumptions that we make based on those labels, discounts the true value of the person. In other words, labels and inaccurate stereotypes of society often overshadow the strengths, potential, and accomplishments of persons with disabilities.


To be fair, labels can serve a valuable purpose because they facilitate communication of the nature of a particular condition to others. This message in turn allows for the provision of appropriate care, access to resources or accommodations, and program enrollment. The danger of labels comes from people's misuse and misunderstanding of them as well as the tendency to generalize impairment of one particular area of functioning to the overall abilities of the person. An example of such a generalization would be assuming that a person has difficulty solving problems because he or she cannot hear. Even worse, we begin to focus so much on the disability that the differentiating characteristic overshadows the person.


According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1991), legally, a person with a disability is someone who

  • has a physical, mental, or cognitive impairment that substantially limits one or more major life functions or activities;
  • has a record of such an impairment; or
  • is regarded as having such an impairment.


This legal definition requires the disability to result in a substantial limitation in one or more major life activities, such as walking, breathing, seeing, thinking, performing tasks, speaking, learning, working, driving, and participating in community life. Although this definition is clear, it goes beyond how well a person can function and the degree to which he or she can be independent. The spirit of the ADA also embraces a philosophy or belief system that the person should not be taken out of the equation. In other words, the person is much more than his or her disability. People with disabilities have the right to be treated as a person first, not as their disability. Beyond the individual's physical, mental, or cognitive limitations, the constant factor is his or her humanity (Bogdan & Taylor, 1992). Thus, the humanity should be our first consideration.


Each of the hundreds of disabilities has a differing degree of severity. Chapters 7 to 11 discuss characteristics and aspects of various disabilities from the perspective of disability-related characteristics and programs. Here, we will explore the idea of viewing a person with a disability as a person first, with the focus not on the person's limitations but on the individual as a person. This perspective is a key element in the prevention of handicaps. A handicap is a situation in which a person can be disadvantaged not by the disability but by other factors. These disadvantages may result from a preventable or removable barrier to performance of a particular activity or skill. Handicaps can include physical barriers but can also come from society's negligence or negative personal attitudes, beliefs, or knowledge. This chapter focuses on the social issue of how society perceives and interacts with people with disabilities. In particular, we discuss person-first aspects of disability, the effect of negative perceptions of disability, and the role of therapeutic recreation relative to people with disabilities.