People who are physically or mentally disabled have many disadvantages. They may have an impairment, such as paralysis, blindness, or a psychiatric disorder, that reduces their ability to do things that nondisabled people do and may interfere with their fulfillment of socially valued roles. Also, disabled people often are subjected to various degrees of exclusion from the social and economic life of their communities. Political movements by disabled people to remove barriers and overcome discrimination, and protective legislation in several countries, have focused attention on the controversial concept of disability and on what constitutes just and compassionate behavior toward the disabled by individuals and institutions, including private employers, providers of public services, and schools. These ethical issues are pressing for all people because everyone can be disabled by trauma and because in societies in which life expectancy is long everyone may expect some impairments in old age.
This entry analyzes the concept of disability and its links to certain other concepts (impairment, handicap, health, and disease), explains the two competing explanatory models of disability, and surveys some of the ethical controversies that pertain to the nature of disability and the relationship between a disabled person and the rest of society.
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When over eighty years of age, the poet Bryant said that he had added more than ten years to his life by taking a simple exercise while dressing in the morning. Those who knew Bryant and the facts of his life never doubted the truth of this statement.