Social Construction

Robot Ninja


By Andrea Scarpino


“Whoa, look at that leg,” the boy at the airport said. He was watching a man with a prosthetic leg walk to the gate to board his plane. The boy’s eyes were wide and his voice full of awe.

“That man has a robot leg,” he said to his father. “I’ve never seen that before. That is so cool.” The father looked as well, said, “Yeah, that is really cool.”

And in that moment, I understood more fully than I ever have before that disability is a social construct. Because for that boy, there was nothing “wrong” with a prosthetic leg—or with someone who needs to use one. I’m pretty sure the word “disabled” didn’t enter his mind. He saw a robot—and he thought that robot was worthy of awe.

That’s something I think a lot of people don’t understand about disability. That we define it, both individually and as a society. We choose its parameters. We choose what “counts” as disability. And we can choose to shift our definitions at any time, to see them through different lenses. We can choose to understand a prosthetic leg as a limitation and/or as a cool robot.

Last week, I sat half asleep in faculty meeting when my university’s ADA coordinator gave a presentation about complying with ADA regulations. I perked up immediately—and immediately felt my heart race. ADA compliance was framed as something faculty needs to do so that pesky students with disabilities don’t sue us. Indeed, the presentation began with a story of a student who had sued a university for appropriate accommodations—and won. The longer I listened, the more irate I became.

Because accommodation shouldn’t be presented as a financial drain or “going out of our way” for the squeaky wheel. It is a matter of social justice, of valuing every person for who she is, for listening to every person’s needs and working our hardest to meet them. In a way, it’s a type of consensus decision making, of not just allowing every person’s participation in the system, but encouraging it. Of being clear that we all benefit from the inclusion of people unlike us. 

So, with the provost in the room, with the university president in the room, I raised my hand. And I tried very hard to control my voice as I spoke. But I was angry and that was pretty clear. The next day, the provost told me I had rattled our ADA coordinator—I think he used the word “intimidated.” And I guess I’m sorry about that—she was just trying to do her job. And she doesn’t have a background in disability or Disability Studies, I’ve since learned.

So I guess I’ll reach out to her this week. I guess I’ll try to help her understand my anger. I guess I’ll try to be clearer about how disability—like gender, like race—is socially constructed. About what that really means. About the boy in the airport, how he didn’t see a prosthetic leg as a problem, a potential lawsuit, a potential financial burden. As something to be “fixed” or ignored, swept out of sight. How he just saw it as really cool. A “robot leg” he called it. And he said it with awe, with admiration. 


Andrea Scarpino is a poet and essayist and a frequent contributor to POTB. Check her out at:

0 thoughts on “Social Construction

  1. ADA is a huge philosophical jump from exclusion to inclusion, disparity to parity. It takes extra time and it takes extra effort. Yet, in the same way that making time to floss one’s teeth once a day or buckle a seat belt before riding in a car protects the health of an individual, ADA protects the health and integrity of a democratic society. The regular practice and true understanding of ADA is a mindset that is worth struggling toward. Unfortunately, the value of new routines typically become absolutely undeniable only after they become a part of a person’s or organization’s regular schedule. Good luck Andrea — if you can get the ADA Coordinator in your corner, you’ve accomplished a lot.


  2. So glad you intimidated the ADA coordinator and got angry. Long ago when I was in college well before the ADA was passed we had disability student services office. The job of this office was to advocate for disabled students. Fast forward 20 years post ADA and now so called ADA coordinators do not care about students with a disability but rather seek to protect the university from such students. Moreover such students are perceived to be an onerous burden on tight budgets. The law is complied with but begrudgingly. Access is provided not because the university wants its campus to be accessible but they know they must meet the letter of the law. Another issue for ADA coordinators is it is often a tacked on job–not their primary job. Hence most ADA coordinators have no knowledge of disability studies, history or advocacy. Sadly, I have not met a competent ADA coordinator in over a decade. So often when teaching I get a meaningless form with the wrong box checked about a student needing extra time on an exam. The form arrives weeks after exams have taken place.