Defining Disability for this Study

Trying to define “disability” and who is “disabled” can be difficult.  Some people prefer the term “person with a disability” others prefer “disabled person.”  The general public often perceives disability to be a medical classification, while those who are disabled and who are social activists see it as primarily social category created by physical and attitudinal barriers. Some hearing impaired people assert that they are not disabled, but rather belong to the American Sign Language (ASL) cultural community which is no different from any other ethnic group be it French, Chinese or Peruvian – it is the rest of the world which labels them disabled.  Others argue that those with addictions should be seen as disabled, whereas most governments, agencies and corporations do not agree.  There are many sorts of disabilities: cognitive, psychiatric, developmental, physical and sensory.  All of them contribute to an understanding of ourselves as human beings.

At the PROUD Project, we very consciously limit our definition of disability for our current research project because we are interested in how individuals have surmounted obstacles to gainful employment. Many people have disabilities which they mask or cover when they are at work. Their employers have no idea or sense of their impairment. By interviewing disabled employees with obvious physical impairments who cannot hide their difference, we hope to learn about what allowed them to overcome barriers. (We also want to learn from the employers who hire and retain them.) By speaking to people with obvious physical or sensorial impairments we consider that their experiences will be valuable because they will give people in the disability community hope,  and provide direction for creating a more inclusive and supportive work environment.

Of course, people who have developmental, cognitive or psychiatric disabilities also have important insights to offer.  Again, because these disabilities can often be masked, employers likely do not know about them during the hiring process and, afterwards during the actual job.  Moreover, it is important that we respect the people who choose to share their experiences with us.  We need to be mindful that a different form of consent to engage in our research will be required when working with individuals with cognitive or psychiatric disabilities.  In the future, we would like to design a project that properly ensures that we respect and understand these individuals when we seek their knowledge about employment. 

And so, our current research about disabled employees’ experiences of work is confined to those with physical and sensorial disabilities. This can be defined as a limitation on a person’s physical functioning, mobility, senses, dexterity or stamina, or effects on other aspects of daily living. Physical impairment can originate congenitally or be acquired through accident or disease. Individuals with these disabilities sometimes require assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and artificial limbs to improve their mobility, or accommodations to enable them to participate in activities like school, work or recreation.

For the moment, our research does not address persons with “invisible” impairments or disabilities stemming from cognitive or developmental impairment, mental illness or addiction.  While many different kinds of disabilities result in similar challenges in the workplace, the scope of this current study simply cannot address them all.  

For further information please refer to:

What is Phenomenological Research?

Phenomenological research seeks to solve problems by understanding the “lived experiences” of people or groups.  Researchers gather qualitative data from research interviews, documents, photos or other artifacts that communicate the range and depth of a problem from the first-hand knowledge and experiences of those involved or affected by an issue.  The phenomenological perspective enables researchers to capture the complexity and richness of an issue by engaging with people who are involved.

The PROUD project research team, for example, is studying the problem of disability and underemployment by talking with people with disabilities who have had success in the workforce, listening to the those who employ people with disabilities, and communicating with co-workers who are involved with disabled workers to understand how workplace cultures can better support people with physical disabilities.  The researchers aim to gain a profound understanding of the issues, and develop best practices with the disability community, to be shared with employers, policy makers and advocates.

A phenomenological study of disability and employment is different than a labour market study of disability and employment.  The former approach is human-centered and gathers in-depth information from a small number of participants; while the latter approach is data centered and relies on employment statistics gathered from a large number of quantitative surveys or interviews.

The phenomenological research perspective is rooted in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology that seeks to understand consciousness and structures of experience.  This philosophy is found in the works of 20th century philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

For more information about this research approach:

  • Creswell, J.W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among the five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (pp. 77-83)
  • Finlay, L. (2009). Exploring lived experience: Principles and practice of phenomenological research. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 16(9), 474-481.
  • Hughes, B., & K. Paterson. (1997). The social model of disability and the disappearing body: Towards a sociology of impairment. Disability & Society 12 (3): 325–40. doi:10.1080/09687599727209
  • Maxwell, J.A. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (pp. 135-136)
  • Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage publications.
  • Smith, D. W. (2018). Phenomenology.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Vagle, M. D. (2018). Crafting phenomenological research. New York:  Routledge.