Disability Theory

This project examines the experience of disability in early childhood. The use of the term disability is complex. Many children and their families do not think of themselves as disabled. We have thought carefully about the use of the word disability and we would like to explain why we use it. We do intend to describe individual peoples’ experiences, but to use language that is consistent with the values of the project.

  • The social model of disability views disablement as a result of barriers in society rather than individual pathology (Oliver, 2013). Understanding disability from this theoretical position shifts the focus from individual pathology to the social experience of individuals.
  • The social model of disability came from the view that a collective identity is important because it can lead to collective action against discrimination and oppression. The social model does not presume that the experience of disability is a single experience. The social model also does not assume that the individual characteristics of people experiencing disability are the same.
  • Internationally, there is a growing disability movement. This movement embraces a disability identity that is positive. Through the arts and culture it is also building a disability identity that is known as “disability pride”.

Defining disability

Disability in this study is broadly inclusive of cognitive, physical, emotional, and developmental disabilities. We acknowledge that disablement is often the result of several factors such as an interaction between:

  • Individual characteristics (e.g. genetic and environmental factors)
  • Social experiences (e.g. poverty and racialization)
  • Community social capital (e.g. early intervention services, child care, and culturally relevant supports)

In practice we cannot define disability for others. In fact, a goal of this project is to understand the meaning of early childhood disability from multiple perspectives. In our recruitment of participants, we ask for families who have:

  • Worked with a resource consultant in their childcare setting
  • Used early intervention services (such as speech and language, autism supports, medical interventions, behaviour supports, occupational therapy, physical therapy or mental health services for your child).
  • Used early intervention services through an Aboriginal family support or early childhood program (such as Aboriginal Head Start)
  • Had concerns about their children’s development but have not used supports (or not been able to access supports)

Defining disability through service use is a problem, but it is also a challenge to find language that fits with the cultural and individual experience of disability. In particular, for young children, who may or may not have long-term disabilities, and are in the process of developing their identities in a social or community context, it is important that they have an opportunity to create their own identities.