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The Etiology of Disability: Perspectives & Causes

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

When we understand where disabilities come from and how they are perceived socially and academically, we are better prepared to work with individuals with disabilities. This lesson discusses different perspectives on the causes of disabilities.

Understanding Etiology

As a special educator, Kathy has worked with students with many different kinds of disabilities. Over the years, Kathy's own understanding of what a disability is has also shifted. She knows that there are many different ways to define disability.

For instance, some people think of a disability as a problem within an individual that makes their learning, growth and functioning difficult in one or more domains. Others see disability in terms of a mismatch between an individual and what is expected of them by society.

Kathy knows that regardless of the definition, it can be really important to understand the etiology, or root causes, of a disability. She thinks about different ways perspectives on disability impact the understanding of their etiology.

Defining Disability

First, Kathy starts thinking about the different ways she has seen disability defined over time. She knows that the perspective a person takes on the definition will impact how the disability and its etiology are perceived.

Medical Perspective

Kathy is very familiar with the medical perspective on disability, which often seeks to understand disability as something rooted in physiology and anatomy. For instance, in working with a student who has ADHD, Kathy knows that the medical perspective is most interested in the structure and function of the student's brain.

In the medical perspective, disability is seen as structural as well as functional, and the differences in the brains and bodies of people with disabilities compared to typically developing peers are emphasized.

Psychological and Behavioral Perspective

A psychological and behavioral perspective on disability is more interested in how the individual thinks, feels and behaves. Kathy knows that these perspectives can coexist with a medical perspective, but they tend to have a slightly different emphasis.

For instance, in the same student with ADHD, Kathy knows that the psychological perspective is more interested in how the student's thought process, self-regulation, and capacity for attention and focus differ from peers, regardless of what is seen, for example on a functional MRI.

A behavioral perspective on disability also emphasizes how the person acts in different situations. Unlike the medical perspective, the behavioral perspective might see the same person very differently in two or more different settings.

Educational Perspective

As a teacher, of course, Kathy is really familiar with the educational perspective on disability. This perspective is most interested in defining disability in terms of how a student can perform in an educational setting. For instance, if the student with ADHD is learning and performing fine in school, the educational perspective might not see the ADHD as a disability.

Causes of a Disability

Kathy knows that there are many different causes of disabilities, and sometimes, the causes are unknown, conflated, or only partially understood.

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