Every morning we wake up to a new day; a day filled with experiences. These experiences are unique to each individual, as they are dependent on one’s abilities. The principle element that differentiates humans is our potential to see, learn and take part in what life has to offer; this is referred to as ableism.

Through the establishment of social standards based on cultural expectations, people are categorized into either an abled majority, or a disabled minority. As discussed in Pearson, “The social model of disability, while acknowledging the biological conditions of disability, challenges the notion that disability is primarily a medical category. From this perspective, the real problem with physical and mental impairment is not physical, but social: It is the way people with able bodies view people with disabilities and the institutionalization of these views that are the genuine handicaps” (Tiemann, 5). Through Oliver 1996b and Duncan 2001 theory of the social model of disability, it is clear that although ableness is a result of biological determinants, it is expressed through social construction.

Social constructs are the building blocks of society. In relationship with cultural norms and expectations, humans have created stereotypes and categorizations for almost everything. With the vehicle of popular culture through television shows and movies, ableism is a basic facet for countless plots. Computer-animated films such as Happy Feet or Avatar, both play with a form of disability that ostracizes a member (usually the main character) from the able-bodied population. In Happy Feet, the storyline is built upon a penguin who is unable sing like the other penguins. He mumbles instead, which in turn, characterizes his identity. Mumble expresses his happiness and love for life through dancing, but this is not accepted. Although he has a miraculous talent, it is overseen by his inability to sing, which consequentially makes him a “disabled” member. Similarly, Avatar is a film that portrays Na’vi-human hybrids, representing the idealized figures in society. The main character, Jake, who happens to be paraplegic, transforms into an Avatar with the hope of becoming an able-bodied human when he returns.

avatar-locandina-italiana  Happyfeet02

Studying the relationship between these two films bring forth a universal perspective that is expressed in real life. The perspective being: one who is different or contradicts social norms in respect to ablesim is viewed as an outcast. Furthermore, this socially constructed diagnosis, which determines whether an individual is disabled, can only be resolved through change. One must change who they are, and what makes them unique (or “disabled”), in order to be accepted back into society. How does this speak to our generation? What message are we allowing youth to carry with them throughout their lives?

Ableism is not only characterized through one’s physical ability to perform a task, it also plays into one’s cognitive ability to “fit in”. This is a principle component in 2006 dance/romance film, Step Up. The lead role, starring Channing Tatum, plays a lower-class white male who is identified as a street rebel and hip-hop dancer. He gets involved with vandalism and is charged with public offense, resulting in community hours at The Maryland School Of Arts. This already sets the stage for a binary segregation of upper and lower class figures, creating friction as they merge. In order for Tatum to be accepted by his peers in this new setting, he must change himself. His social identity is what disables him from fitting in to another class of individuals. In this sense, is ableism biologically determined at all?


Each and everyone of us has different capabilities. Strengths and weaknesses are what characterize us as individuals, as unique identities. One’s disablement can be biologically determined, whether physical or psychological; but one’s ableism is a socially constructed stereotype. We are given no choice over what bodies we are born into, but we do have a choice in controlling our attitudes and perceptions towards those who are part of a minority. In breaking down these barriers of social cognitions towards ableism, we can turn society into a less segregated population and achieve equality within our differences.

How does ableism impact your life, and what control do you have?


Works Cited


Tiemann, Kathleen A.. The intersections collection: Pearson custom sociology. Gender, Race and Popular Culture ed. New York: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011.


“Avatar 3D (2009) Full Blu-ray “. Photograph. 2009. Fondazionefalchi.org, http://www.fondazion.org/scarica+trailer+avatar+full+hd+ita.html (accessed March 31, 2013).

“DanielCraigIsNotBond.com endorses “Happy Feet””. Photograph. 2006. http://www.danielcraigisnotbond.com/HappyFeet.html (accessed March 31, 2013).

“Step up (film)”. Photograph. 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Step_Up_(film) (accessed March 31, 2013).


3 thoughts on “Disabilities: Biologically Determined vs. Socially Constructed

  1. I recall when I was in high school I was diagnosed with clinical depression. They placed me on a medication that ended up causing a reaction in me that led them to then diagnose me with bipolar disorder. After many heavily medicated years in which they tried combination after combination of varieties of pills, finally one psychiatrist agreed to try taking me off of medication and seeing what would happen.

    It turned out that I didn’t need medication after all. This culture that wants to put a label on everything, to place people in categories of either “abled” or “disabled,” had decided to place a label on my teen angst that had far-reaching and detrimental effects on my life for years.

    It’s now been over a decade since I’ve been off of the medications, and I’ve been highly successful both in my academic career as well as in my professional role as a preschool teacher.

  2. Great post to read! I found it interesting to see the relationship between Avatar and Happy Feet two seemingly different movies, with such similarities. I believe that in showing our youth through characters in movies such as Happy Feet and Avatar that these characters must change their disability in order to fit in with society, the youth watching these movies may feel the exact same way and that they need to change in order to fit in.

  3. @Jeff, similar situations to yours happen far too frequently. More and more elementary school aged children seem to be unnecessarily diagnosed with and treated for ADD. Not only does this practice perpetuate the abled/disabled dichotomy, but it also encourages the growth of our ‘quick fix’ culture. Education systems must change to accommodate the wide variety of students who begin schooling. Differences need to be embraced, not diagnosed.

    @K.S., in a similar way, just as you’ve stated, the characters in Avatar and Happy Feet diagnose themselves as different and abnormal, when really their uniqueness should be embraced and celebrated. Again, children need to be taught in schools that this is not the case. In order to be effective, those teachings must be supported by the government and by the medical community.

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