Rannveig Svendby: The language of percentages: ranking bodies, shaping realities, and limiting opportunities
This exploratory study is situated in a critical tradition. It aims to describe and analyse the reliance on percentage assessments of functional capacity among a group of young adults in rehabilitation after serious motor vehicle accidents.
Photo: Published in Disability and Rehabilitation
Qualitative interviews and participant observation. Thematic and theoretically informed analysis was carried out.
The concept of percentages played a significant role in the study participants’ meaning-making processes as they went through rehabilitation. Percentage scores below 100 made a strong impression on them and were associated with strong emotions. They also strove to prove their scores wrong, often by attempting to function in full time (100%) employment positions. Significantly, many talked as if they “were” their percentage scores.
The utility of percentage logics is to describe parts of that which is full and whole, and we argue that this logic provides for specific and problematic ways of seeing and understanding impairment and disability. When scored on hierarchical scales, functional tests by necessity rank bodies and bodily functions as better or worse while precluding alternative understandings of affected function.
Implications for rehabilitation
Measurements expressed in numbers and percentages are used in rehabilitation by professionals to depict and convey functional capacities to patients, but this “language” also leaks into the wider context of patients’ lives and understandings of themselves.
The act of measurement may work to rank bodies in specific and normative ways that are unable to express difference as a valuable instance of human diversity, and may make rehabilitees question whether they are complete human beings.
Medical professionals should address and take into consideration the wider consequences of the act of measurement when they provide guidance and support for patients’ in their rehabilitation processes.