What is the "Social Model" of Disability?

Published on September 23, 2021 106 views


“The Social Model frames disability as something that is socially constructed. Disability is created by physical, organizational, and attitudinal barriers and these can be changed and eliminated. This gives us a dynamic and positive model that tells us what the problem is and how to fix it. It takes us away from the position of "blaming" the individual for their shortcoming. It states that impairment is, and always will be, present in every known society, and therefore the only logical position to take, is to plan and organize society in a way that includes, rather than excludes, Disabled people."
(Barbara Lisicki, 2013).

To know more about the Social Model of Disability, please read the following factsheet: "The Social Model of Disability Factsheet" from Inclusion London.
What is the "Social Model" of Disability?

 




  • Introduction

  • This Factsheet aims to provide the reader with an introduction to the Social Model of Disability, and an overview of some of its implications for us as Disabled people and society more generally.

  • It is important to note that the word ‘model’ is a term used to describe a way of thinking or a concept. There are several different ‘models’ of disability as detailed later in this factsheet. These models approach disability in very different ways. It is generally accepted that conceptual models are not set in stone, rarely provide a perfect explanation, and are often difficult to apply in “real life”. The Social Model of Disability is no exception; it was never designed to be a perfect theory of disability but an explanation of Disabled people’s experience in society and, equally importantly, a tool for creating social change.

  • What is powerful and liberating about the Social Model is that it does reflect Disabled people’s real-life experience, and puts forward a radical and practical approach to ending Disabled people’s exclusion and oppression that does not require Disabled people to change who they are to be deemed to be entitled to the same rights and opportunities as non-disabled people.

  • - Beginnings of the Social Model

  • In the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by the great civil rights movements of the time, Disabled people started to question their life experiences and why so many Disabled people were institutionalized and excluded. Disabled people started to discuss and develop an understanding of Disabled people’s experiences that radically questioned society’s assumptions about what Disabled people could and could not do, and how Disabled people should live. Disabled people began to challenge the exclusion, discrimination, and lack of choice and control they experienced in daily life, and the prevailing negative attitudes in society. This was the beginning of the ‘Disability People’s Rights Movement.

  • The early part of the Movement saw the development of organizations like the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), and the Liberation Network of People with Disabilities. These groups, very importantly and uniquely for the time, were run by and for Disabled people and enabled Disabled people to develop their political thinking and actively campaign for radical change.

  • Many of the early UPIAS members, for example, were residents in institutional care services and wanted out of these institutions to live like other citizens with choice and control over how they lived and with whom. They began to develop a new approach to thinking about disability that reframed disability as a civil rights and equality issue, rather than a medical or charitable issue. These groups began to demand choice and control over their lives and, equally importantly, began to lay out the changes in society that would need to happen for Disabled people to have the same rights and opportunities as others (see, for example, the development of the “pillars of independent living” detailed on Page 10 of this factsheet).

  • This approach to disability became known as the Social Model of Disability. Over the last 40 years, the Social Model has been extended, refined, and consistently questioned but it remains both the best explanation of disability and the best “route map” for achieving equality and real social change for Disabled people.

  • -Traditional Models of Disability

  • The Social Model of Disability was developed by Disabled people to identify and take action against Disabled people’s oppression and exclusion. It was developed as a direct challenge to the prevailing models of disability that viewed disability as an individual, medical problem that needed to be prevented, cured, or contained; and/or as a charitable issue that viewed Disabled people as unfortunates who needed to be pitied and catered for by segregated, charitable services.

  • Here is a diagram of a Medical Model of Disability that shows some of the thinking and assumptions of this Model.


  • Both the Medical and Charitable Models of Disability rest on assumptions of what a Disabled person ‘can’t do’ because of their impairment; for example: “She cannot walk, therefore she will never be able to work”. A Medical Model of Disability will then focus on trying to help the individual to walk again through operations or equipment, whilst a Charitable Model of Disability will conclude that the person who is unable to walk needs special charitable services (often segregated from society), such as day centers, as an alternative to working. Both of these Models locate the source of the ‘problem’ as the individual Disabled person and, in doing so, place responsibility for the situation onto the Disabled person and away from society and how it is run and organized.

  • Both the Medical and Charitable Models of Disability are still alive and kicking, and often still lurk in approaches and assumptions made by government and public bodies, despite these organizations purporting to adopt a Social Model approach. 

  • -The Social Model of Disability

  • The Social Model of Disability, developed over the last 40 years by Disabled people, is a radically different Model from the Medical and Charitable approach to disability described above. It states that people have impairments but that the oppression, exclusion, and discrimination people with impairments face is not an inevitable consequence of having an impairment, but is caused instead by the way society is run and organized.

  • The Social Model of Disability holds that people with impairments are ‘disabled’ by the barriers operating in a society that exclude and discriminate against them.

  • Here is a diagram of the Social Model of Disability that shows some of the thinking and assumptions of this Model.

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  • The Social Model not only identifies society as the cause of disability but, equally importantly, it provides a way of explaining how society goes about disabling people with impairments. Sometimes referred to as a “barriers-approach”, the Social Model provides a “route map” that identifies both the barriers that disable people with impairments and how these barriers can be removed, minimized, or countered by other forms of support.

  • Key disabling barriers from a Social Model approach include:

  • -Attitudinal barriers

  • These are social and cultural attitudes and assumptions about people with impairments that explain, justify and perpetuate prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion in society; for example, assumptions that people with certain impairments can’t work, can’t be independent, can’t have sex, shouldn’t have children, need protecting, are “child-like”, are “ dangerous”, should not be seen because they are upsetting, are scroungers, etc.

  • -Physical barriers

  • These are barriers linked to the physical and built environment and cover a huge range of barriers that prevent equal access, such as stairs/ steps, narrow corridors, and doorways, kerbs, inaccessible toilets, inaccessible housing, poor lighting, poor seating, broken lifts, or poorly managed street and public spaces.

  • -Information/Communication Barriers

  • These are barriers linked to information and communication, such as lack of British Sign Language interpreters for Deaf people, lack of provision of hearing induction loops, lack of information in different accessible formats such as Easy Read, plain English, and large font.

  • Barriers “disable” by creating exclusion, discrimination, and disadvantage for people with impairments.

  • The Social Model, in highlighting the barrier, often simultaneously identifies the solution to the barrier; for example:

  • . Barrier: The intercom in a block flats does not have a video camera, therefore Deaf/hard of hearing residents cannot establish who is seeking entry.

  • . Solution: Install an intercom system with video for Deaf and hard-of-hearing residents.

  • . Additional benefits: Elderly people and other people who may feel vulnerable feel more secure in the accommodation.

  • Likewise, from a Social Model perspective, to enable Disabled people to achieve genuine independent living requires a range of support to be in place in society to counter the effects of discrimination and oppression. These are known as the pillars of independent living, which are:

  • Appropriate and accessible information

  • An adequate income

  • Appropriate and accessible health and social care provision

  • A fully accessible transport system

  • Full access to the environment

  • Adequate provision of technical aids and equipment

  • Availability of accessible and adapted housing

  • Adequate provision of personal assistance

  • Availability of inclusive education and training

  • Equal opportunities for employment

  • Availability of independent advocacy and self-advocacy

  • Availability of peer counseling

  • The Social Model of Disability is dynamic and effective in that it focuses on barriers and solutions to such barriers and, in doing so, maps out an approach to inclusion and equality that is of benefit to society as a whole, not just Disabled people.

  • - Impairment vs disability

  • From a Social Model perspective, there is a radical difference between impairment and disability:

  • Impairment is an individual’s physical, sensory or cognitive difference (for example, being blind, experiencing bipolar, having M.S., or a learning difficulty).

  • Disability is the name for the social consequences of having an impairment. People with impairments are disabled by society, so disability is, therefore, a social construct that can be changed and removed.

  • -Language

  • Language reflects the cultural assumptions and thinking of the society around us. It follows then that for much of history, the language and words used to describe Disabled people have reflected a negative, charitable or medical view of disability. Words that reflect these views of disability include: “handicapped”, “cripple”, “wheelchair-bound”, “retarded”, “suffering from” and “special needs”.

  • Social Model language rejects this negative or medical language and replaces it with language that describes more accurately our experience. For example, “Disabled person” (not “handicapped” or “cripple”), “wheelchair user” (not “wheelchair-bound”), “person with learning difficulties” (not “retarded”), “person with an impairment” (not “suffering from”) and “access needs” (not “special needs”).

  • Although the words we use to describe things change over time, it is important to respect and use the language people have chosen to describe and define themselves.

  • Disabled people or people with disabilities?

  • From a Social Model perspective, the term ‘Disabled people’ is a political term that people with impairments use to emphasize the social cause and nature of the exclusion and discrimination we face as people with impairments, disabled by society.

  • Using the term ‘Disabled people’ or ’Disabled person’ is not a value judgment on what people can or cannot do, but rather a political description of the shared, disabling experience that people with impairments face in society. It is used to bring together a very diverse group of people with impairments to identify the causes of our discrimination and oppression, communicate shared experience and knowledge, and create social change.

  • Non-Social Model language/Medical Model language such as “a person with disabilities” confuses impairment and disability and implies disability is an individual matter – something a person “has”. This is wrong. It is the disabling barriers operating in a society that disables us, not our impairments.

  • The Social Model of Disability is central to the struggle for inclusion and equality for Disabled People. However, as with any model, there are challenges to the Social Model approach. Two current areas of challenge are:

  • . The creation & promotion of a Biopsychosocial Model of Disability

  • . Criticism by Disabled people

  • -The Biopsychosocial Model of Disability

  • The Biopsychosocial Model of Disability was championed and developed by the private health insurance sector in America. This Model re-frames disability away from a Social Model understanding back to an individualist, quasi-medical and psychological approach.

  • This Model seeks to put the responsibility for Disabled people’s situation back onto the individual Disabled person. For example, the primary cause of unemployment amongst Disabled people, from this view, is not the economic and attitudinal barriers operating in the workplace but an individual’s (so-called negative) attitudes, thinking, and behavior about work, which need moderating and changing. If a Disabled person fails to find work it is primarily, from this Model’s perspective, a failure of the individual to be sufficiently motivated and flexible to “get on their bike and find work”.

  • This is a dangerous approach, as the answer to disability equality from a Biopsychosocial Model perspective is to strip Disabled people of rights and support (things that this Model argues de-incentivize Disabled people and stop them from being self‐reliant), to develop a denial of disability as a social construct, and ultimately to place the blame and responsibility for exclusion, discrimination, poverty and all that flows from this back onto the individual.

  • The Biopsychosocial Model is rapidly gaining ground in the UK. It was a founding approach of Atos and underpins the Work Capability Assessment. It is promoted relentlessly by increasing numbers of private companies involved in health, employment, and public services, including Unum Insurance who also sought to gain academic credibility for the Model through funding the Centre for Psychosocial & Disability Research at Cardiff University.

  • -Criticism from Disabled people

  • Criticism from Disabled people primarily focuses on the failure of the Social Model to explain or address the specific experiences and needs of certain groups of Disabled people; for example, mental health system survivors and people with long term health conditions.

  • We would agree that there has indeed been a failure by advocates of the Social Model to apply and address the specific experiences of certain – often excluded – groups of Disabled people. However, we would argue this is not a failure of the Social Model itself, but a failure of its application and implementation by the Disabled people’s rights movement.

  • We need to get much better at recognizing, understanding, and responding to the specific and diverse range of experiences, barriers, and needs of all people with impairments. We need to deepen and broaden the application of the Social Model so it is a tool for all of us – across all impairment groups –  and is used with as much vigor to unpack, understand and help remove the barriers that people with mental health issues experience, for example, as it has been used for people with physical impairments.

  • We also need to do more to celebrate the diversity and difference we represent as Disabled people, and the culture and community we have developed, both of which help mark the way for a different approach and understanding of society and humanity.

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  • For more info please visit: 

  • Inclusion London

  • https://www.inclusionlondon.org.uk

     

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