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The 'New Paradigm' of Disability

The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research has provided leadership in research leading to a new conceptual foundation for organizing and interpreting the phenomenon of disability--a "New Paradigm'' of disability.

The new paradigm can be understood best in contrast to the one it replaces:

The "old'' paradigm has presented disability as the result of a deficit in an individual that prevented the individual from performing certain functions or activities. This underlying assumption about disability affected many aspects of research, rehabilitation, and services. The new paradigm with its recognition of the contextual aspect of disability--the dynamic interaction between individual and environment over the lifespan that constitutes disability--has significant consequences for NIDRR's research agenda over the next decade. These consequences include:

Changes in the ways disability is defined and conceptualized New approaches for measuring and counting disability A focus on new research issues Changes in the way research is managed and conducted.

New paradigm calls for new definitions of "disability'

The majority of Federal definitions of disability, including those in the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA, and the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), derive from the old paradigm. These definitions all attribute the cause of limitations in daily activities or social roles to characteristics of the individual, that is, "conditions'' or "impairments.''

Even the ADA, which promotes accessibility and accommodations, locates the disability with the individual. This is understandable not only because of the time involved in changing a paradigm, but because of the lack of a system to define, classify, and measure the environmental components of disability and the absence of a model to describe and quantify the interaction of environmental and individual variables.

This need for a change in definitions must be addressed by activities such as the attempt to revise the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps (ICIDH) (1980), to better define and measure the factors external to the individual that contribute to disability. Under the new paradigm, questions about employment status, for example, should focus on the need for accommodations as well as on the existence of an impairment.

Measures must enable researchers to predict and understand changes in the prevalence and distribution of disabilities--the emerging universe of disability--which illustrates the link between underlying social and environmental conditions such as poverty, race, culture, isolation, the age continuum, and the emergence of new causes of disability, new disability syndromes, and the differential distribution of disability among various population groups in our society.

Significance for research

This paradigm is a construction of the disability and scientific communities alike and provides a mechanism for the application of scientific research to the goals and concerns of individuals with disabilities. The new paradigm of disability is neither entirely new nor entirely static. Thomas Kuhn defines paradigm as `"universal achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners'' (Kuhn, 1962). The term paradigm is used here in the quasi-popular sense it has acquired over the last 40 years to indicate a basic consensus among investigators of a phenomenon that defines the legitimate problems and methods of a research field. NIDRR posits that the paradigm in this case applies not to a single field, but to a single phenomenon-- "disability''--as it is investigated by multiple disciplinary fields. The disability paradigm that undergirds NIDRR's research strategy for the future maintains that disability is a product of an interaction between characteristics (e.g., conditions or impairments, functional status, or personal and social qualities) of the individual and characteristics of the natural, built, cultural, and social environments. The construct of disability is located on a continuum from enablement to disablement.

Personal characteristics, as well as environmental ones, may be enabling or disabling, and the relative degree fluctuates, depending on condition, time, and setting. Disability is a contextual variable, dynamic over time and circumstance. For example, on a societal level, institutions and the built environment were designed for a limited segment of the population. Researchers should explore new ways of measuring and assessing disability in context, taking into account the effect of physical, policy, and social environments, and the dynamic nature of disability over the lifespan and across environments.

Research must develop new methods

Research must develop new methods to focus on the interface between person and society. It is not enough simply to shift the focus of concern from the individual to the environment. What is needed are studies of the dynamic interplay between person and environment; of the adapting process, by the society as well as by the individual; and of the adaptive changes that occur during a person's lifespan. Research must focus on the development and evaluation of environmental options in the built environment and the communications environment, including such approaches as

  • Universal design
  • Modular design, and
  • Assistive technology

All these enable individuals with disabilities and society to select the most appropriate means to accommodate or alleviate limitations. Research must lead to a better understanding of the context and trends in our society that affect the total environment in which people with disabilities will live and in which disability will be manifested:

  • Economy and labor market trends
  • Social, cultural, and attitudinal developments
  • New technological developments.

Research must develop ways to enable individuals with disabilities to compete in the global economy, including education and training methods, job accommodations, and assistive technology. Research must develop an understanding of the public policy context in which disability is addressed, ignored, or exacerbated. General fiscal and economic policies, as well as more specific policies on

  • Employment
  • Delivery and financing of health care
  • Income support
  • Transportation
  • Social services
  • Telecommunications
  • Institutionalization
  • Education
  • Long-term care

are critical factors influencing disability and disabled persons. Their frequent inconsistencies, contradictions, and oversights can inhibit the attainment of personal and social goals for persons with disabilities.

Adapted from The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research's Proposed Long-Range Plan for Fiscal Years 1999-2004





The following sites contain information that may be of interest. Please bear in mind that the information at these sites is not controlled by the Center for An Accessible society. Links to these sites do not imply that the Center supports either the organizations or the views presented.


The following information is available from InfoUse:

Chartbook on Women and Disability in the United States
The latest publication in the Chartbook series, "Chartbook on Women and Disability in the United States," is a reference on national statistical information on gender and disability. All the charts and text from this chartbook are available on-line, and you may also download the entire chartbook in PDF format for printing. Last updated: 07/21/99.

Chartbook on Work and Disability in the United States
InfoUse has recently published the "Chartbook on Work and Disability in the United States," a reference on national statistical information on work disability. All the charts and text from this chartbook are available on-line, and you may also download the entire chartbook in PDF format for printing. Last updated: 03/19/99. Note: Some charts have been updated with 1998 CPS data.

Chartbook on Disability in the United States
InfoUse has published a revision of its "Chartbook on Disability in the United States," a reference on national statistical information on disability. This section of our Web site includes Chartbook excerpts, with an electronic version of the entire chartbook available for downloading in PDF format. Last updated: 11/12/98.






Expert sources

Disability and Census 2000

The 'new paradigm' of disability

One in 5 working-age people reports a disability

Read Deborah Kaplan on the definitions of disability

Research on disability definitions from NIDRR

Statistics on disability

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