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Models of Disability

There are 2 main models of disability: the Medical Model and the Social Model.

The Medical Model

Under the Medical Model, disabled people are defined by their illness or medical condition. The Medical Model regards disability as an individual problem.  It promotes the view of a disabled person as dependent and needing to be cured or cared for, and justifies the way in which disabled people have been systematically excluded from society.  The disabled person is the problem, not society.  Control resides firmly with professionals; choices for the individual are limited to the options provided and approved by the 'helping' expert.

The Medical Model is best summarised by referring to the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps developed by the World Health Organisation in 1980.  The classification makes the following distinctions:

Impairment is ‘any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function’.

Disability is ‘any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being’.

Diagram of Medical Model

Medical Model.jpg

The Medical Model focuses on what a person can’t do:

Impairment Disability
A wheelchair user cannot climb the stairs or walk to the shops

A partially sighted person

cannot read information in ‘standard’ size print

A person with an acquired brain injury cannot speak as quickly as other people

People with disabilities have generally rejected this model. They say it has led to their low self esteem, undeveloped life skills, poor education and consequent high unemployment levels. Above all, they have recognised that the Medical Model requires the breaking of natural relationships with their families, communities and society as a whole.

The Social Model

During the 1960’s and 1970’s newly formed groups of disabled people started to challenge the way in which they were treated and regarded within society.  Alternative definitions of impairment and disability were developed and formed the basis of what is known as the Social Model.

Impairment is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment.

Disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. (Barnes, 1994:2)

Disability is no longer seen as an individual problem but as a social issue caused by policies, practices, attitudes and/or the environment.  For example, a wheelchair user may have a physical impairment but it is the absence of a ramp that prevents them from accessing a building.  In other words, the disabling factor is the inaccessible environment.

The disabled people's movement believes the 'cure' to the problem of disability lies in the restructuring of society.  Unlike medically based 'cures', that focus on individuals and their impairment, this is an achievable goal and to the benefit of everyone.  This approach suggests that disabled people's individual and collective disadvantage is due to a complex form of institutional discrimination as fundamental to our society as sexism, racism or homophobia.

The social model focuses on ridding society of barriers, rather than relying on ‘curing’ people who have impairments:

social model

The Medical Model vs the Social Model

Medical Model Social Model
Disability is a ‘personal tragedy’ Disability is the experience of social oppression
Disability is a personal problem Disability is a social problem 
Medicalisation is the ‘cure’  Self help groups and systems benefit disabled people enormously 
Professional dominance  Individual and collective responsibility 
Expertise is held by the (qualified) professionals  Expertise is the experience of disabled people 
The disabled person must adjust  The disabled person should receive affirmation 
‘The Disabled’ have an individual identity  Disabled people have a collective identity 
Disabled people need care  Disabled people need rights 
Professionals are in control  Disabled people should make their own choices 
Disability is a policy issue  Disability is a political issue
Individual adaptations  Social change 


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