Functional Diversity: a New Perspective on Disability

· April 18, 2018

Throughout history, different models have tried to explain disabilities, but in this article, we’re going to elaborate on the model of functional diversity. First we’ll get a better understanding of the history behind the concept before discussing what it means.

Let’s look at how the world has viewed people with disabilities. On this trip to the past, we’ll come across a wide variety of models ranging from the demonological model to the modern perspective of functional diversity.

Historical ideas of disability

Human beings evolved and so did the concept of disability. The nature of each time period affected the definition of and expectations around disabilities. Factors include cultural, medical, technological, and social aspects.

Someone holding an elderly person's hand.

In the Middle Ages, society saw disabilities as punishment from the gods. The premise for this was a demonological model in which anyone with a disability was thought to be possessed. In this society, people with disabilities were isolated, at best. But killing people with disabilities was a common practice so the “evil” didn’t spread.

The model of Hippocrates and Galen didn’t boom until the twentieth century. This model has physical and organic pathology as its center. It was understood that if a person had a disability, it was due to some kind of failure in his body.

This model views people with disabilities as helpless beings in need of care and protection. They have no autonomy and independence, and institutionalization was the only option.


Modern models and functional diversity

In the post-war era, there was an increase in the rate of disabilities. Society had the challenge of reintegrating injured people. Hence, the socio-environmental model entered the scene.

Society saw people with disabilities as social individuals who would return to normal life, according to this model. The treatment in this period was centered around creating support with a focus on technology. The objective was for people with disabilities to interact with their environment in the best possible conditions.

Today, a rehabilitative model of disability prevails. We consider people with disabilities as active, autonomous, and independent. They are involved in their own rehabilitation process and the idea is full participation in society.

This model gives a lot of importance to the role played by rehabilitation professionals. On the other hand, it gives little importance to any environmental factors that may have caused this situation of disability.

And so the integrating model was born as a response to the above problem. This model no longer focuses on how to change people with disabilities so they can adapt to social norms. Instead, it sees disability as a functional diversity. 

Any lack of adaptation would just be the logical consequence of the environment rejecting someone being different. This model seeks to break down the bias towards normality while emphasizing differences instead of deficiencies.

What is functional diversity?

The concept of functional diversity counters the idea that people with disabilities have an incapacitating disorder. Society is what categorizes them as people with disabilities.

The danger would no longer reside only in the label and its connotations. Instead, it would reside in the fact that society itself sets standards that people with disabilities can’t meet.

This is a constructivist idea, easy to understand through the following statement. If everyone were blind, being blind wouldn’t be a problem because society would adapt to blindness.

Society is what’s excluding individuals with functional diversity from “normality” by not creating products, resources, or tools for them. This exclusion is somewhat pragmatic. It’s more convenient to only think about the majority than to think about minorities. But by doing this, we’re creating disabling conditions for people who otherwise wouldn’t have to suffer them.

A woman in a wheelchair playing with a friend: functional diversity.

Universal design

This is the origin of the idea behind the universal design, a term architect Ronald L. Mace coined. Universal design tries to explain that people shouldn’t create products with the “normal” majority in mind and then adapt it for others. When designing our world, we should take into account the totality of all existing individuals.

Universal design is composed of seven basic principles:

  • Equitable use: People with different skills or abilities must be able to use it.
  • Flexibility: The design must accommodate a wide range of people with different tastes and abilities.
  • Simple use: It must be easy for everyone to understand and learn to use.
  • Perceptible information: The design must effectively communicate the information needed to use it.
  • Error tolerance: The design must minimize possible incidents and unforeseen adverse consequences.
  • Minimum physical effort: It must be able to be used effectively in a comfortable way with minimal fatigue.
  • Appropriate size: It must have a size appropriate for its approach, use, and scope.

The fact is that most of the world is nowhere near understanding what functional diversity really means. But inching towards the utopia of universal design can help. It could lead to considerable improvement in the quality of life for many people currently excluded from living an independent life.