Psychology Chartered

Can Brain Injury Survivors Teach Us What It Means to be Human?

Posted by Elliot Miller

10th January 2018

In modern day society, the definition of the ‘human’ is becoming narrower and narrower. This is leaving people at risk of being excluded from society if they do not conform to the ‘ideally constructed’ human – especially those with a disability, who often fail to be included within this restricted definition. But what exactly do we mean by the human?

To understand this question, the context is crucial. Research has a tendency to define the human from a medical approach, doing little to disturb the limits of what, or who qualifies as human. Such impairment and deficit-focused studies often fail to provide a complete understanding of disability, ignoring the rich and meaningful everyday lives of disabled people. Dr Jonathan Harvey – a researcher and lecturer from the University of Southampton – argues that when researching disability and impairment, it is important to have an awareness of the way disabled people risk being labelled as non-human, limiting the opportunity for change and growth.

He explores the way identity is reconstructed after brain injury using insights from contemporary social theory. This approach considers the fluidity of identity rather than sticking to static phenomenon and classifying people in terms of deviance from the norm, thus broadening our understanding of the human. But why a theoretical starting point to study disability? Well since disability is not what society considers to be ‘normal’, disability is the ideal way to question what is normal and what we mean by the human.

The notion of independence has long been considered an important part of being human, and so neuro-rehabilitation largely focuses on maximising independence. Using brain injury survivors as an example, said individuals often live with some degree of impairment and are dependent on objects and people to provide assistance in their everyday lives, thus risk being seen as non-human; however, most people are dependent on technology on a daily basis, raising doubts about the significance of reciprocity and what it really means to be independent. After all, if we are not as independent as we think, then why do we think it is crucial for people with neurological conditions to regain independence? This forces us to change our thinking about what it means to be independent, with Dr Harvey arguing that a shift away from the discourses that surround rehabilitation and an exploration of dependence will enable us to celebrate the diversity in humanity.

Through questioning assumptions in rehabilitation – such as the notion of independence – we can broaden our view of what makes the human, and in turn change the focus of rehabilitation to what is meaningful to each individual. For instance, walking is considered an important marker of independence for brain injury survivors who have suffered a loss of mobility, and so health care professionals are tasked with fixing deficient body parts rather than looking at the whole person; surely though, a better approach would be to consider what is meaningful to a person in their everyday life?

We need to look at the hopes, goals and dreams – or the imagined future – of brain injury survivors, rather than making assumptions about what is important to them. The focus of rehabilitation should be about providing the opportunity for brain injury survivors to reflect on their altered identities, and then helping these individuals learn a new normal rather than what the rest of society considers to be normal. Only until we begin to look at the details in a person’s everyday life, can we truly find out what it means to be human.