The social model of disability

What is it and why is it important to us?

The social model of disability is a way of viewing the world, developed by disabled people.

The model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people's attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can't do certain things.

The social model helps us recognise barriers that make life harder for disabled people. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers disabled people more independence, choice and control.

Scope's Everyday Equality strategy is based on the social model of disability. Not everyone uses the social model and that’s ok.

Changing attitudes towards disabled people 

Negative attitudes based on prejudice or stereotype (sometimes called disablism) can stop disabled people from having equal opportunities.

Examples of negative attitudes include assuming that disabled people can’t work, that they can’t have children, that they shouldn’t live independently or that they can’t have sex.

Medical model of disability

The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by someone's impairment. The medical model of disability says people are disabled by their impairments or differences.

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 lives.

Examples of the social model in action 

  • You are a disabled person who can't use stairs and who wants to get into a building with a step at the entrance. The social model recognises that this is a problem with the building, not the person, and would suggest adding a ramp to the entrance.
  • Your child with a visual impairment wants to read the latest best-selling book, so they can chat about it with their friends. The social model solution makes full-text recordings available when the book is published. 
  • You are a teenager with a learning difficulty who wants to live independently in your own home, but you don't know how to pay the rent. The social model recognises that you just lack help paying the rent. A medical model might assume that the barriers to independent living are insurmountable, and you might be expected to live in an institutional home.