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The discussion over disability's definition arose out of disability activism in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970s, which challenged how the medical concept of disability dominated perception and discourse about disabilities.
Debates about proper terminology and their implied politics continue in disability communities and the academic field of disability studies.
Or the term may serve to refer to the identity of disabled people.
Physiological functional capacity (PFC) is a related term that describes an individual's performance level.
Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions.
An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.
In the early modern period there was a shift to seeking biological causes for physical and mental differences, as well as heightened interest in demarcating categories: for example, Ambroise Pare, in the sixteenth century, wrote of "monsters", "prodigies", and "the maimed".
The European Enlightenment's emphases on knowledge derived from reason and on the value of natural science to human progress helped spawn the birth of institutions and associated knowledge systems that observed and categorized human beings; among these, the ones significant to the development of today's concepts of disability were asylums, clinics, and, prisons.
They were also thought to be part of the natural order, especially during and in the fallout of the Plague, which wrought impairments throughout the general population.
In some countries, the law requires that disabilities are documented by a healthcare provider in order to assess qualifications for disability benefits.
Contemporary understandings of disability derive from concepts that arose during the West's scientific Enlightenment; prior to the Enlightenment, physical differences were viewed through a different lens.
Quetelet postulated that one could take the sum of all people's attributes in a given population (such as their height or weight) and find their average, and that this figure should serve as a norm toward which all should aspire.
This idea of a statistical norm threads through the rapid take up of statistics gathering by Britain, United States, and the Western European states during this time period, and it is tied to the rise of eugenics.