The social model of disability

How we see and think about people with a disability is important in determining how we care for them. Over many years, different ways of thinking about people with disability – what are called ‘models’ of disability – have been developed. Probably the best know of these is the ‘medical’ model.  The medical model of disability views people as being disabled, impaired and ‘different’, and that their needs  should be addressed by medical and other treatments to help ‘fix’ them (even if their disability is not necessarily causing any problems). So the medical model looks at ‘what needs to be fixed’ with the person, not at his or her strengths or needs. People with disability are expected to have low expectations for what they can achieve and to be dependent on others for help, support and decision-making.

Happily, this model has now largely been replaced by the social model of disability. Instead of seeing the person with disability as ‘having something wrong’ that needs to be ‘fixed’, the social model sees society and the barriers it places to the aspirations and progress of people with disabilities as being at fault.  These barriers tend to be of three kinds:

  • environmental –  buildings, transport and other public places and services being developed without thought for the needs of people with disabilities
  • attitudinal – people and communities being quick to draw stereotypical conclusions that limit the potential of people with disabilities and the tendency of some people (knowingly or unknowingly)  to be discriminatory or prejudicial
  • organisational – showing lack of flexibility and empathy in the way they develop their policies, practices and procedures .

When we base our practice on the social model, we focus on reducing or removing the barriers  people with disabilities face. It’s not about ‘fixing’ people – it’s about working with them to help them achieve their goals, aspirations and full potential. It recognises people with disabilities as full, valued and included members of our communities with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. For these reasons, the social model is now the model of choice.

To learn more about the social model of disability and to view a video in which people with disabilities speak about their experiences with the model, visit the website of Scope: About Disability, the organisation that promotes the interests of people with disability throughout the UK.

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