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Introduction to Disabilities

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Welcome to our Disabilities topic center. To have a disability means that one has fundamental difficulty accomplishing things that others take for granted. Disabilities can be physical in nature (an inability to walk due to amputation, or muscular or neurological dysfunction, for example), sensory (as in blindness, or deafness), cognitive (as in brain damage or intellectual disabilities), behavioral (as in an inability to work), or even emotional. This particular disabilities topic center contains mostly references to physical and sensory forms of disability, as other forms are adequately covered in other topic centers.

older woman at homePhysical and sensory disabilities can be major impediments to participating in normal society. As a simple example, consider the computer. Being able to use a computer effortlessly is practically a basic literacy skill required for employment these days. But people who are blind, and people who have lost the ability to use their hands for typing (perhaps due to repetitive stress injuries) have a great deal of difficulty operating a computer. The same group is more or less unable to operate a car without assistance. Persons who have lost the use of their legs are able to use a car (if they have access to an expensive customized vehicle designed for their impediments, but are stopped cold when required to go up or down a stairway (and don’t even ask about using fire escapes). While many people who are deaf are able to engage in normal conversation to a good extent, they are often also recipients of special training programs not available to all. People who are deaf must rely on technologies designed with their needs in mind to do something as ‘simple’ as watch television.

Disabilities can take a severe psychological toll. To be disabled means to have lost a range of functioning or to never have acquired that functioning in the first place. It can also easily mean being more isolated from others than one would like to be. And because people are sometimes cruel and/or clueless, people with disabilities are often made to feel ‘different’ by others. Grief and loss, a sense of being ‘broken’ or ‘useless’, and self-pity can easily cascade into a diagnosable depression or related mental disorder. For this reason, it is important that persons with disabilities remember to take care of their mental health needs as well as their physical ones.

One possible upside to being disabled can come as a result of no longer being able to take simple things for granted. Consciousness and acceptance of disability can, at least in some cases, to profound spiritual growth. It is easy for persons unimpeded by barriers to go through life in a fog of entitlement, complacency and false security. It can take a crisis of major proportions to help people break through their day-to-day mindset so as to achieve a fundamental realization that they are not immortal or entitled. Becoming consciously grateful for what one does have is a far greater and more fulfilling experience than any amount of striving.

We’ve here collected resources concerned with helping people to manage disabilities. Given our psychological bent, where we’ve generated resources ourselves, they will focus on mental health in disability, although we’ve been much broader in selecting outside resources. We hope you’ll find this resource useful.