Advancing Disability Justice in Public Health

Kara Mannor, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, researches conceptual and methodological approaches for studying the relationships between ableism and health outcomes for disabled people. Ableism, as Mannor explains it, describes the oppression that disabled people experience in society. 

Mannor, who is also a Rackham Merit Fellow in the Department of Epidemiology and a graduate of the School of Public Health Master of Population and Health Scientists Program, joins Michigan Minds to discuss the medical and social models of disability, disability justice, and public health’s commitment to disability communities. 

Kara Mannor on Michigan Minds

“My research interests are informed by my academic training, my experience as a disabled person, and some of the work I’ve been able to do over the past several years as a community organizer,” Mannor says. 

She explains the medical and social models of disability, seeing  them as two different ways to think about disability. “The medical model of disability tends to represent the dominant and everyday assumptions that we make about disability, particularly in a western context like the United States. So under the medical model, disability is an abnormality or a deficit in functioning that’s usually diagnosable by a physician,” Manor says. “When we limit our definition of disability to those terms, we can really only understand disability and disabled people as problems and as inherently having some lesser form of human experience. These ways of thinking are very pervasive.” The social model of disability, she says, makes a distinction between bodily impairments and disabling environments, identifying the social and physical environment as the problem of and solution to the marginalization of disabled people. 

In talking about disability justice, Mannor emphasizes that it is important to understand that disability justice is not a synonym for disability rights, but rather it is a framework developed to better understand and address ableism in society — and to forge a path forward. 

“Disability justice starts with this recognition that the disability rights movement and the passage of the ADA represent very substantial gains for disabled people in the United States. However, disability rights is an incomplete vision,” she says. “It doesn’t account for all of the myriad ways that disabled people experience ableism, particularly for folks of color, for LGBTQ folks, for immigrants, for incarcerated people, and for other disabled groups who experience multiple forms of oppression.”

Mannor says that public health has a commitment to disability communities, which starts with the idea of questioning basic assumptions used in the field. It’s important to have a commitment to unlearning and taking time to find better solutions, and disabled individuals should be provided opportunities to engage in these conversations. 

“In order to get to that place where disabled people are studied and included in public health with dignity, we need to have everyone commit to understanding how ableism and other systems of oppression operate in our field. We need to have everyone commit to uplifting the knowledge that disabled people and other marginalized groups bring to our field. And we need to have everyone commit to incorporating anti-ableist practices in their everyday work.”