Symbolic Interactionism and Disability Analysis

By Danielle Hornung

Symbolic Interactionism and Disability Analysis

Utilizing symbolic interactionism when explicating the development of disability as a social problem is very effective, especially due to the theoretical perspective’s focus on micro-level interactions. Symbolic interactionism aligns well with the contemporary definition of disability, often referred to as the social model. This model defines disability as “disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream social activities” (Oliver, 2009, p. 22).

Symbolic interactionism provides a perspective on disability that significantly contrasts with traditional medical models.

Symbolic interactionists would suggest that through interactions among individuals with disabilities and socially determined bodily normative individuals, the development of society and its influences on populations with disabilities can be modified, depending on how individual difference is defined (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012). Symbolic interactionists would further suggest that defining this meaning of difference is an influential aspect of systemic oppression.

Symbolic interactionism provides a perspective on disability that significantly contrasts with traditional medical models. This perspective, if utilized and applied correctly, could provide great clarity in the social problem, and perhaps aid in the progression towards a more equitable society for individuals with disabilities.

Disability as a Social Problem


Disability is a social problem that continues to grow in prevalence and influence. In 2019, 26% of the United States population, or 61 million people, were recorded as having a disability (National Center on Birth Defects, 2019). This number has grown by over 4 million people since 2010. The number of youth with a disability has also been growing. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of adolescents with a disability grew by approximately 17% (Centers for Disease Control, 2021; Disability Justice, 2020). According to these statistics, of every four people, at least one person has a disability (National Center on Birth Defects, 2019). Not only is this prevalence datum significant due to its size but it is also significant due to its continuous growth.

Despite these individuals gaining more civil rights in recent years, individuals with disabilities are still presently experiencing discrimination and oppression.

The prevalence of disability varies per population. Disability prevalence differs between age groups, racial and ethnic groups, groups of varying socioeconomic statuses, groups of varying education levels, groups with varying health insurances, and groups in differing living environments. For example, in a recent research study that surveyed children between ages 2 and 17, it was found that children with public health insurance, with mothers who had not received a college education, who were living below the federal poverty line, and who were living in rural areas were more likely to have a developmental disability than their counterparts (Zablotsky et. al, 2019). Adults, persons over the age of 65, women, non-Hispanic American Indians, and Alaskan Natives were also all shown to have higher rates of disability in their respective groups (National Center on Birth Defects, 2019).

It is also important to consider the implications of socioeconomic status on disability. The prevalence rate of disability remains significantly higher in populations of low socioeconomic status than populations of middle or high socioeconomic status. Not only is having a disability more likely in this group, but it is also more likely that this group will not have access to the resources necessary to effectively support individuals with a disability (Zablotsky et. al, 2019).

Ableism continues to influence public perception and the larger society.

Recent studies have shown that the average household containing one employed adult with a disability has nearly $18,000 worth of medical and living costs to pay for yearly, which is on average, an additional 30% in income necessary to meet the individual’s basic human needs (Goodman et al., 2020). Also valuable to note, when individuals with disabilities are able to work, they are paid on average significantly less than individuals without disabilities. According to the United States Census Bureau (2015), the median income for individuals with disabilities is approximately $20,250; meanwhile, the median income for individuals without disabilities is approximately $30,469. Data also suggests that more than 80% of individuals with disabilities experience unemployment (Winsor et al., 2018). Despite this astronomical rate of unemployment that this population experiences, it has been found that approximately two-thirds of individuals with disabilities have expressed interest in wanting employment (American Psychological Association, 2010). These statistics are particularly compelling and suggest that the individuals who need additional resources to have their basic needs met are often those who experience the most difficulty with resource accessibility, especially resources for employment and finances.

Despite the magnitude of disability prevalence, this population continues to experience hardship due to stigmatized public perception. Historically, individuals with disabilities have been discriminated against and mistreated. This population has been denied citizenship, housing, employment, education, self-determination, and other civil rights. They have been abused, neglected, marginalized, and oppressed. This population has historically endured hardships as severe as torture, incarceration, and death (Minnesota Governor’s Council, 2021). Despite these individuals gaining more civil rights in recent years, individuals with disabilities are still presently experiencing discrimination and oppression. Ableism continues to influence public perception and the larger society. There are current policies that still discourage accessible equal opportunities such as housing, education, and employment for individuals with disabilities (Southern Adirondack Independent Living Center, 2018).

Medical Approach

The medical model states that having a disability reduces the quality of life.

There have been many theories, models, and ways of thinking to approach the development of disability as a social problem. Perhaps one of the most prominent traditional approaches is the medical model. The medical model, also referred to as the individual model, defines disability as an intrinsic result of a physical condition (Art Beyond Sight, 2014). The medical model emphasizes physiological, anatomical, and biochemical functional deviance as causes of illness or suffering (Engel, 1973). The medical model states that having a disability reduces the quality of life. Further, it encourages curing and managing physical conditions. The medical model values a medical professional’s potential ability to diagnose, understand, and control a disability and its course (Art Beyond Sight, 2014).

This model also discusses the roles of the individual and society. It affirms that any difficulties associated with an individual’s disability are the sole responsibility of that individual. The medical model believes that the individual should solve their own difficulties to avoid inconveniencing others. Difficulties due to a disability are not to be seen as reasons for concern for any persons other than the individual with the disability, according to this approach (University of Leicester, 2015).

Symbolic Interactionism Application

Symbolic interactionism is a micro-sociological social behaviorist theory. Most frequently, symbolic interactionism emphasizes interpersonal communications and how these communications are used by an individual to create meaning (Carter & Fuller, 2015). This newly created meaning influences individual development, and further, societal development, according to this framework. For this reason, symbolic interactionism is often referred to as a bottom-up approach. It focuses on micro-level interactions and social structures and then uses these to explain larger society (Carter & Fuller, 2015).

The media plays a large role in creating social order in society based on bodily features.

Symbolic interactionism is the theory chosen to be applied to disability because of its focus on micro-level interactions. It is a theory powerfully rooted in micro interest. It utilizes micro-level interactions to further explain influences on societal behavior. When analyzing the social problem of disability, symbolic interactionism seeks to make sense of the human individual body and the significance of these bodies during social interactions (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012). Symbolic interactionism also seeks to further explain how the human body and the interactions it creates play a role in the development of larger society.

Symbolic interactionists developed the term deviance to describe the differences in individual social interactions. Deviant interactions, or interactions that differ from the conventional, can unsettle societal norms and unravel traditional social interactions. In this framework, disability is considered a form of deviance. Symbolic interactionists are especially interested in how individual development is affected by persons forced into taking on the role of a deviant, the deviant’s social interactions, and how societal development is created or modified through these interactions. It has been found that frequently individuals with disabilities attempt to avoid social interactions due to the social penalty of being labeled as deviant (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012).

Erving Goffman, a theorist specifically interested in social interactions and deviancy, further defined this social penalty of difference as stigma. Goffman postulated that stigma is only developed when others perceive an individual’s difference to be discrediting. Goffman stated that stigma is created when there is a discrepancy between the assumed social identity of an individual and their actual identity (Goffman, 1986). For this reason, individuals with disabilities often are affected by stigma according to symbolic interactionists. By simply interacting with others socially in ways that are different from conventional interactions, individuals with disabilities are stigmatized and thus penalized for being labeled as deviants. This fosters an overtly negative social environment for unique persons who interact in non-traditional ways.

It also plays a role in more formal practices such as legislation, the way media portrays certain legislation, and how legislation is perceived and defined by the public culture.

Another point that symbolic interactionists discuss is the role of social norms and how these norms are portrayed in daily life. Symbolic interactionists often discuss the link between individuals and society. These theorists note how individuals develop an understanding of social bodily norms through their interactions with their social environment and society (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012).

Media often plays a significant role in these interactions as well. Media regularly focuses on dominant, culturally normative bodies (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012). This is particularly important to consider when discussing the interactions individuals with disabilities have with their environments. If an individual adheres meaning to the differences between their body and the dominantly displayed bodies of society, their development of self can be influenced.

Symbolic interactionism is frequently criticized for not being applicable in macro practice settings. It is valuable to note, though, that symbolic interactionism does play a role in disability development as a social problem in macro practice settings. As mentioned briefly, media plays a role in disability and individual development (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012). Media is considered a macro setting due to its size and influence.

The media plays a large role in creating social order in society based on bodily features. It also plays a role in more formal practices such as legislation, the way media portrays certain legislation, and how legislation is perceived and defined by the public culture. This is very influential on individual and societal development. For example, if new state social welfare legislation is celebrated by the media with powerful emotional stories and insightful intellectual debate, other states are more likely to adopt this legislation. The way individuals perceive items presented to them through the media allows individuals to create meaning, facilitate social interactions, and modify their individual and societal development (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012).

Application Evaluation

Symbolic interactionism provides a valuable perspective on disability as a social problem. The theory provides efficient explanations of the construction of disability as a social problem and why individuals with disabilities continue to face hardship as an oppressed group. Symbolic interactionists provide analyses of societal development based on micro-level individual interactions and development. This theory is a unique alternative to outdated traditional medical models and fosters the possibility of social change through mindful social interactions.

Symbolic interactionism provides a valuable perspective on disability as a social problem.

Disability is not the result of physical inferiority or biological impairment but is the result of a societal failure that continues to perpetuate the oppression of an entire population (Hahn, 1985). Symbolic interactionism lends well to this novel concept. Symbolic interactionism supports the notion that disability has been identified as a societal problem because of the interactions individuals with disabilities have with individuals without disabilities.

Symbolic interactionism further agrees that the systemic oppression and marginalization of individuals with disabilities is due to the societal failure to accept a population containing differences from the social norm. The theory expands beyond the micro perspective as well, which is often not seen in symbolic interactionism application. Symbolic interactionists explain the fruition of this social problem by detailing the influences of person-to-person interactions and person-to-media interactions on individual and societal development.

Social Work Ethics

There are numerous social work ethical principles and standards that the symbolic interactionist perspective utilizes when explaining disability as a social problem. Cultural awareness and social diversity belong to an ethical standard of social workers that is utilized in this symbolic interactionism application. This standard explains that social workers should seek to understand the oppression and social diversity of all individuals, especially when considering mental and physical ability (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2021). Symbolic interactionists do so in their application in disability; they seek the education and understanding necessary to acknowledge that individuals with disabilities have experienced societal oppression not because of their biological make-up, but because of societal failure.

Cultural awareness and social diversity belong to an ethical standard of social workers that is utilized in this symbolic interactionism application.

Another social work value expressly used in this application is social and political action. Symbolic interactionists utilize this value when discussing disability by promoting and encouraging respect for social diversity and difference in society, by encouraging readers to seek further education on disabilities, and by promoting policies that defend this population’s rights. Symbolic interactionists would also act to prevent and eliminate the discrimination of individuals with disabilities, due to their understanding of the social problem’s causation as discrimination (NASW, 2021).

Symbolic interactionists also utilize concepts from the social work ethical value that discusses derogatory language. According to the Code of Ethics, derogatory language is not to be used in any communications; all communications should be respectful and accurate (NASW, 2021). Symbolic interactionists recognize the influence derogatory language has on an individual’s development. They also acknowledge the role of derogatory language and other communications in the conception of the oppression of individuals with disabilities. These social work ethical values are the most highly utilized of symbolic interactionists when discussing disability.

Commendations and Criticisms

Symbolic interactionism provides an interesting perspective when applied to the development of disability as a social problem. The theory does a sufficient job at providing an explanation of the social problem. Symbolic interactionism highlights the interactions and communications between individuals with disabilities with individuals without disabilities and the larger society. Symbolic interactionists postulate that individuals with disabilities are systemically oppressed due to the implications of these interactions. The theory discusses the meaning created through these interactions that influences both the individuals with disabilities and the socially determined normative individuals.

Symbolic interactionists recognize the influence derogatory language has on an individual’s development.

These interactions often highlight the differences between individuals, causing the identification of those with disabilities as deviant, progressing the stigma of disability (Goffman, 1986). Symbolic interactionists theorize that the differences discovered in these interactions influence the development of individuals and society. Symbolic interactionism focuses on individual micro-level interactions and their influences on society that facilitate oppression and discrimination. This theory is a client-centered approach that values micro-level interactions and individual diversity.

The most frequently discussed criticism of symbolic interactionism is its lack of application in macro-level practice. This criticism has merit; however, in this application, symbolic interactionists provide clear macro-level implications such as the roles of media and legislation (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012). Perhaps, the larger gap is not in the lack of macro-level applications, but is in the lack of definitive explanations of how societal development changes due to individual interactions.

Symbolic interactionism theorizes that society is modified through individual interaction; however, being as flexible as the theory is, it does not provide a concrete explanation or prediction of societal development or modification. This gap becomes larger when considering the need for macro-level change to eliminate the systemic oppression individuals with disabilities experience. Symbolic interactionists may not have the ability to make systemic suggestions while remaining in the constraints of the theory.


Potential recommendations symbolic interactionists would likely suggest regarding disability’s development as a social problem would be rooted in modifications of interaction and communication. Symbolic interactionists would likely recommend, firstly, that education on disability be encouraged both in professional agencies and public society. Symbolic interactionists would encourage the public to seek education on disabilities to develop improved understandings of what disability is by the contemporary non-medical definition, the history of the oppression and marginalization of individuals with disabilities, and how the current stigma of disability perpetuates discrimination against the population.

Symbolic interactionists would encourage focusing on personal interactions with individuals with disabilities.

Theorists would further encourage challenging socially determined bodily norms by defining the stigma created by society and its definitions of normative biology and medical disability. Lastly, symbolic interactionists would encourage focusing on personal interactions with individuals with disabilities. Symbolic interactionists would note the importance of using mindful language and communication cues to support difference and diversity. Theorists would suggest that creating a supportive and mindful environment for social diversity within interactions would foster positive social change in individual and societal development.


Symbolic interactionism provides a uniquely sufficient explanation for the construction of disability as a social problem. The theory analyzes societal development through the implications of micro-level interactions on individuals with disabilities and the influences of these interactions on individual development (Carter & Fuller, 2015). Implementing such a theory into the contemporary approach when working with individuals with disabilities could facilitate progression through enlightening discourse.

Symbolic interactionism would further suggest that through mindful and supportive interactions, individuals with disabilities will have increased accessibility to equitable rights, thus creating social change and the dismantlement of societal bodily norms (Coleman-Fountain & McLaughlin, 2012). This application of symbolic interactionism is valuable and ethical.


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Danielle Hornung is a graduate student in the M.S.W. Social Work program.