Habilitation, Dishabilitation, and Rehabilitation: A Revolutionary Approach to Disability

Hank Schlinger



This presentation from the 2022 Michigan Autism Conference introduces the concepts of habilitation, dishabilitation, and rehabilitation, suggesting that many behaviors associated with disabilities stem from learning or lack thereof. It challenges traditional views of disability as solely structural or genetic, proposing instead a focus on behavior probability. Selective examples from literature will illustrate how reinforcing able behaviors can not only change but also prevent behaviors traditionally viewed as inherent to disability, offering a revolutionary approach to disabilities.

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This presentation will distinguish between habilitation, “…the original learning prior to the interference we call disability”; dishabilitation, “learning to be disabled”; and rehabilitation,”learning to be better able” (Meyerson, Kerr, and Michael, 1963, p. 82). These conceptual distinctions suggest that many of the behaviors or lack of behaviors that are evidence of disability actually result from learning or the failure of learning. Many so-called disabilities include behaviors reinforced by others albeit inadvertently and often with good intentions, or the absence of behaviors that should have been reinforced but weren’t. This conception of disability is at odds with traditional approaches that suggest the disability is either structural (i.e., something wrong with the brain) or genetic. Even the term disability reflects a view that the problem is some vague concept of ability rather than the probability of engaging in certain behaviors at a certain time. This presentation will cite selective examples from a large literature showing that many behaviors, some of which were thought to be the result of some inherent disability, could be not only changed (i.e., rehabilitated), but also prevented by reinforcing able behaviors (i.e., habilitation), making this is a revolutionary approach to disabilities.

About the Speaker

Henry D. (Hank) Schlinger Jr. received his Ph.D. in applied behavior analysis from WesternMichigan University (WMU) under the supervision of Jack Michael. He completed a two-year National Institutes of Health-funded post-doctoral fellowship in behavioral pharmacology at WMU with Alan Poling. Dr. Schlinger was a full tenured professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, MA, before moving to Los Angeles. He is now professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. Dr. Schlinger has published approximately 100 scholarly articles, chapters, commentaries, and book reviews in more than 35 different journals. He has authored or co-authored four books, Psychology: A Behavioral Overview (1990), A Behavior-Analytic View of Child Development (1995) (translated into Japanese), Introduction to Scientific Psychology (1998), and How to Build Good Behavior and Self-Esteem in Children (2021). He is past editor of The Analysis of Verbal Behavior and The Behavior Analyst and sits on the editorial boards of several other journals. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies and on the Advisory Board of The B. F. Skinner Foundation. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Department of Psychology at Western Michigan University in 2012, and the Jack Michael Award for Outstanding Contributions in Verbal Behavior from the Verbal Behavior Special Interest Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis International in 2015.

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Dr. Hank Schlinger
Habilitation, Dishabilitation, and Rehabilitation: A Revolutionary Approach to Disability
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