The social model of disability

What is it and why is it important to us?

Video describing What is the social model of disability?
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The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives.

Disabled people developed the social model of disability because the traditional medical model did not explain their personal experience of disability or help to develop more inclusive ways of living.

An impairment is defined as long-term limitation of a person’s physical, mental or sensory function.

Changing attitudes to disabled people

Barriers are not just physical. Attitudes found in society based on prejudice or stereotype, or disablism, also disable people from having equal opportunities to be part of society.

Medical model of disability

The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised. The medical model of disability says people are disabled by their impairments or differences.

Under the medical model, these impairments or differences should be 'fixed' or changed by medical and other treatments, even when the impairment or difference does not cause pain or illness.

The medical model looks at what is 'wrong' with the person, not what the person needs. It creates low expectations and leads to people losing independence, choice and control in their own lives.

Social model of disability: some examples

  • A wheelchair user wants to get into a building with a step at the entrance. Under a social model solution, a ramp would be added to the entrance so that the wheelchair user is free to go into the building immediately. Using the medical model, there are very few solutions to help wheelchair users to climb stairs, which excludes them from many essential and leisure activities.
  • A teenager with a learning disability wants to live independently in their own home but is unsure how to pay the rent. Under the social model, the person would be supported so that they can pay rent and live in their own home. Under a medical model, the young person might be expected to live in a communal home.
  • A child with a visual impairment wants to read the latest best-selling book, so that they can chat about it with their sighted friends. Under the medical model, there are very few solutions. A social model solution makes full-text audio recordings available when the book is first published. This means children with visual impairments can join in cultural activities with everyone else.