The Medical and Social Models of Disability

In the past, most models of disability assumed that the problems disabled people experienced were the direct result of their individual physical, sensory or intellectual impairment. In particular, the medical model of disability looked at people in terms of disease, abnormality and "personal tragedy" and assumed that the disabled person is the problem. The disabled person has to be adapted to fit the world as it is and, if that is not possible, the disabled person is shut away safely "out of sight" in a special institution or left isolated in their own home. Only the most basic needs of the disabled person are catered for and the disabled person is entirely dependent, a person to be pitied, patronise or even feared. The focus is on the impairment i.e. the inability to walk, to see, to hear etc. The responsibility and power lies within the medical and associated professions who seek to address the problem solely in terms of medical cures and scientific remedies.

The social model of disability*

This approach looks at the problems of disability in the light of the barriers and obstacles that prevent disabled people from participating in any situation or activity. A clear distinction is made between impairment and disability:

·        Impairment and chronic illness are the underlying fact of life for the disabled person e.g. a defective limb, sensory function, organ or mechanism of the body.

·        Disability is the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation that takes little or no account of people who have impairment and allows barriers and obstructions    to exist which exclude them from participation in the mainstream of social activities. Disability is therefore a particular form of social oppression and discrimination.

The social model clearly demonstrates that the solution to the "problem" of disability lies not in the medically-based cures and scientific remedies but in the restructuring of society to remove the individual and collective disadvantages faced by disabled people. These disadvantages are the result of a complex form of institutional discrimination which is as fundamental to our society as sexism, racism or religious discrimination.

*There are a variety of descriptions of the social model in use for various purposes in academic and other fields. The above is not intended to be a definitive description but provided merely to illustrate the difference between the medical and social approaches.

For a very basic introductory training package on the social model of disability from the Self Direction Community Project in Cornwall, click here.