Social model of disability

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The social model of disability identifies systemic barriers, derogatory attitudes, and social exclusion (intentional or inadvertent), which make it difficult or impossible for individuals with impairments to attain their valued functionings. The social model of disability diverges from the dominant medical model of disability, which is a functional analysis of the body as a machine to be fixed in order to conform with normative values.[1] While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not necessarily have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

A short government advisory animation on the social model of disability

The social model of disability is based on a distinction between the terms impairment and disability. In this model, the word impairment is used to refer to the actual attributes (or lack of attributes) that affect a person, such as the inability to walk or breathe independently. The word disability is used to refer to the restrictions caused by society when it does not give equivalent attention and accommodation to the needs of individuals with impairments.[2]

As a simple example, if a person is unable to climb stairs, the medical model focuses on making the individual physically able to climb stairs. The social model tries to make stair-climbing unnecessary, such as by replacing the stairs with a wheelchair-accessible ramp. According to the social model, the person remains impaired with respect to climbing stairs, but the impairment should no longer be considered disabling in that scenario, because the person can get to the same locations without climbing any stairs.

The origins of the approach can be traced to the 1960s, and the specific term emerged from the United Kingdom in the 1980s. According to Mike Oliver, the social model of disability was never meant to be an all-encompassing explanation of everything that a disabled person experiences.[3]



The history of the social model of disability begins with the history of the disability rights movement. In 1975, the UK organization Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS)[4] claimed: "In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society."[5][6] This became known as the social interpretation, or social definition, of disability.[7]

Alf Morris[edit]

There is a hint from before the 1970s that the interaction between impairment and society was beginning to be considered. Alf Morris wrote in 1969 (emphasis added):[8]

When the title of my Bill was announced, I was frequently asked what kind of improvements for the chronically sick and disabled I had in mind. It always seemed best to begin with the problems of access. I explained that I wanted to remove the severe and gratuitous social handicaps inflicted on disabled people, and often on their families and friends, not just by their exclusion from town and county halls, art galleries, libraries and many of the universities, but even from pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and other places of entertainment ... I explained that I and my friends were concerned to stop society from treating disabled people as if they were a separate species.

Mike Oliver[edit]

Following the UPIAS "social definition of disability", in 1983 the disabled academic Mike Oliver coined the phrase social model of disability in reference to these ideological developments.[9] Oliver focused on the idea of an individual model (of which the medical was a part) versus a social model, derived from the distinction originally made between impairment and disability by the UPIAS.[10] Oliver's seminal 1990 book The Politics of Disablement[11] is widely cited as a major moment in the adoption of this model. The book included just three pages about the social model of disability.[3]


The "social model" was extended and developed by academics and activists in Australia, the UK, the US and other countries, and extended to include all disabled people, including those who have learning difficulties / learning disabilities / or who are intellectually disabled, or people with emotional, mental health or behavioural problems.[12][13]

Tool for cultural analysis[edit]

The social model has become a key tool in the analysis of the cultural representation of disability; from literature, to radio, to charity-imagery to cinema. The social model has become the key conceptual analysis in challenging, for examples, stereotypes and archetypes of disabled people by revealing how conventional imagery reinforces the oppression of disabled people. Key theorists include Paul Darke (cinema), Lois Keith[14] (literature), Leonard Davis (Deaf culture), Jenny Sealey[15] (theatre) and Mary-Pat O'Malley[16] (radio).

Components and usage[edit]

A fundamental aspect of the social model concerns equality. The struggle for equality is often compared to the struggles of other socially marginalized groups. Equal rights are said to empower people with the "ability" to make decisions and the opportunity to live life to the fullest. A related phrase often used by disability rights campaigners, as with other social activism, is "Nothing About Us Without Us".[17]

The social model of disability focuses on changes required in society. These might be in terms of:

  • Attitudes, for example a more positive attitude toward certain mental traits or behaviors, or not underestimating the potential quality of life of those with impairments,
  • Social support, for example help dealing with barriers; resources, aids or positive discrimination to overcome them, for example providing a buddy to explain work culture for an autistic employee,
  • Information, for example using suitable formats (e.g. braille) or levels (e.g. simplicity of language) or coverage (e.g. explaining issues others may take for granted),
  • Physical structures, for example buildings with sloped access and elevators, or
  • Flexible work hours for people with circadian rhythm sleep disorders or, for example, for people who experience anxiety/panic attacks in rush hour traffic.[18]


Oliver did not intend the social model of disability to be an all-encompassing theory of disability, but rather a starting point in reframing how society views disability.[3] This model was conceived of as a tool that could be used to improve the lives of disabled people, rather than a complete explanation for every experience and circumstance.[3]

It has been criticized for underplaying the role of impairments.[3] It has also been criticized for not promoting the normal differences between disabled people, who can have any age, gender, race, and sexual orientation, and instead presenting them as a monolithic, insufficiently individuated block of people.[3]

As an identity[edit]

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the social model of disability became a dominant identity for disabled people in the UK.[19]

The social model of disability implies that attempts to change, "fix" or "cure" individuals, especially when used against the wishes of the patient, can be discriminatory and prejudiced. This attitude, which may be seen as stemming from a medical model and a subjective value system, can harm the self-esteem and social inclusion of those constantly subjected to it (e.g. being told they are not as good or valuable, in an overall and core sense, as others). Some communities have actively resisted "treatments", while, for example, defending a unique culture or set of abilities. In the Deaf community, sign language is valued even if most people do not know it and some parents argue against cochlear implants for deaf infants who cannot consent to them.[20][failed verification] People diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum may argue against efforts to help them to minimize the negative consequences of their behavior to themselves and to other people, and the daily struggles they experience in relation to the symptoms. They argue instead for acceptance of neurodiversity and accommodation to different needs and goals.[21] Some people diagnosed with a mental disorder argue that they are just different and don't necessarily conform. The biopsychosocial model of disease/disability is an attempt by practitioners to address this.[22]

The social model implies that practices such as eugenics are founded on social values and a prejudiced understanding of the potential and value of those labeled disabled. "Over 200,000 disabled people were some of the earlier victims of the Holocaust, after communists, other political enemies and homosexuals."[23]

A 1986 article stated:[24]

It is important that we do not allow ourselves to be dismissed as if we all come under this one great metaphysical category 'the disabled'. The effect of this is a depersonalization, a sweeping dismissal of our individuality, and a denial of our right to be seen as people with our own uniqueness, rather than as the anonymous constituents of a category or group. These words that lump us all together – 'the disabled', 'spina bifida', 'tetraplegic', 'muscular dystrophy', – are nothing more than terminological rubbish bins into which all the important things about us as people get thrown away.

Economic aspects[edit]

The social model also relates to economics. It proposes that people can be disabled by a lack of resources to meet their needs.[3] For example, a person with impairments may need some kinds of support services to be able to participate fully in society, and can become disabled if society cuts the funding for those support services, perhaps in the name of government austerity measures.

It addresses issues such as the under-estimation of the potential of people to contribute to society and add economic value to society, if given equal rights and equally suitable facilities and opportunities as others. Economic research on companies that attempt to accommodate disability in their workforce suggest they outperform competitors.[25]

In Autumn 2001, the UK Office for National Statistics identified that approximately one fifth of the working-age population was disabled – 7.1 million disabled people as opposed to 29.8 million able people – and in this analysis also provided insight into some of the reasons why disabled people were unwilling to enter the labour market, such as that the reduction in disability benefits in entering the labour market would not make it worthwhile to enter into employment. A three-pronged approach was suggested: "incentives to work via the tax and benefit system, for example through the Disabled Person’s Tax Credit; helping people back into work, for example via the New Deal for Disabled People; and tackling discrimination in the workplace via anti-discrimination policy. Underpinning this are the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 and the Disability Rights Commission."[26]

Law and public policy[edit]

In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act defines disability using the medical model - disabled people are defined as people with certain conditions, or certain limitations on their ability to carry out "normal day-to-day activities." But the requirement of employers and service providers to make "reasonable adjustments" to their policies or practices, or physical aspects of their premises, follows the social model.[27] By making adjustments, employers and service providers are removing the barriers that disable - according to the social model, they are effectively removing the person's disability. In 2006, amendments to the act called for local authorities and others to actively promote disability equality. This enforcement came in the shape of the Disability Equality Duty in December 2006.[28] In 2010, The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) was amalgamated into the Equality Act 2010 along with other pertinent discrimination legislation. It extends the law on discrimination to indirect discrimination. For example, if a carer of a person with a disability is discriminated against, this is now also unlawful.[29] Since October 2010, when it came into effect, employers may not legally ask questions about illness or disability at interview for a job or for a referee to comment on such in a reference, except where there is a need to make reasonable adjustments for an interview to proceed. Following an offer of a job, an employer can lawfully ask such questions.[30]

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), revision of 2008 effective in January 2009, is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.[31] It affords similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics illegal. Certain specific conditions are excluded, such as alcoholism and transsexualism.

In 2007, the European Court of Justice in the Chacón Navas v Eurest Colectividades SA court case, defined disability narrowly according to a medical definition that excluded temporary illness, when considering the Directive establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (Council Directive 2000/78/EC). The directive did not provide for any definition of disability, despite discourse in policy documents previously in the EU about endorsing the social model of disability. This allowed the Court of Justice to take a narrow medical definition.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Oliver, Michael, 1945-2019. (2012). The new politics of disablement. Barnes, Colin, 1946-, Oliver, Michael, 1945-2019. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780230392441. OCLC 963741473.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)


  1. ^ Paley, John (1 October 2002). "The Cartesian melodrama in nursing". Nursing Philosophy. 3 (3): 189–192. doi:10.1046/j.1466-769X.2002.00113.x.
  2. ^ Pam Thomas; Lorraine Gradwell; Natalie Markham. "Defining Impairment within the Social Model of Disability" (PDF). Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Oliver, Mike (October 2013). "The social model of disability: thirty years on". Disability & Society. 28 (7): 1024–1026. doi:10.1080/09687599.2013.818773. S2CID 145557887.
  4. ^ Baldwinson, Tony (2019). UPIAS - The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (1972-1990) : a public record from private files. TBR Imprint. ISBN 978-1-913148-01-0. OCLC 1099943533.[page needed]
  5. ^ "THE UNION OF THE PHYSICALLY IMPAIRED AGAINST SEGREGATION and THE DISABILITY ALLIANCE discuss Fundamental Principles of Disability" (PDF). UPIAS. Retrieved 23 October 2010.
  6. ^ "Fundamental Principles of Disability - Comments on the discussion held between the Union and the Disability Alliance on 22nd November, 1975" (PDF). UPIAS. Retrieved 23 October 2010.
  7. ^ Hunt, Judy (2019). No limits : the disabled people's movement : a radical history. Manchester: TBR Imprint. p. 107. ISBN 978-1-913148-02-7. OCLC 1108503896.
  8. ^ Morris, Alfred; Butler, Arthur (1972). No Feet to Drag - Report on the Disabled. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-283-97867-8.
  9. ^ Michael Oliver; Bob Sapey (2006). Social work with disabled people. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-1838-3.
  10. ^ MIKE OLIVER (23 July 1990). "THE INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIAL MODELS OF DISABILITY" (PDF). Retrieved 10 November 2012. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Oliver, Michael (1990). The Politics of Disablement. London: Macmillan Education. ISBN 9780333432938.
  12. ^ "Disabling Imagery? | Ways of thinking about disability: 'Medical Model' vs 'Social Model' | Learning resources| BFI". 22 March 2010. Archived from the original on 3 August 2012. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  13. ^ Goodley, Dan (1 March 2001). "'Learning Difficulties', the Social Model of Disability and Impairment: Challenging epistemologies". Disability & Society. 16 (2): 207–231. doi:10.1080/09687590120035816. S2CID 143447725.
  14. ^ Gardner, Lyn (3 February 2001). "Cured by submission". The Guardian.
  15. ^ Theatre Company, Graeae (2020). "Who We Are".
  16. ^ O’Malley, Mary-Pat (1 February 2009). "Falling between frames: Institutional discourse and disability in radio". Journal of Pragmatics. 41 (2): 346–356. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2008.07.008.
  17. ^ James I. Charlton (2000). Nothing about us without us: disability oppression and empowerment. University of California Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-520-22481-0.
  18. ^ "EHRC - Examples of reasonable adjustments in the workplace". 1 October 2010. Archived from the original on 23 October 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  19. ^ Shakespeare, Tom; Watson, Nicholas (April 1997). "Defending the Social Model". Disability & Society. 12 (2): 293–300. doi:10.1080/09687599727380.
  20. ^ NASEO. "Sound from Silence - Sidebar - Cochlear Implants". Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  21. ^ Seidel, Kathleen (20 August 2004). "the autistic distinction". Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  22. ^ Engel, G. (8 April 1977). "The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine". Science. 196 (4286): 129–136. Bibcode:1977Sci...196..129E. doi:10.1126/science.847460. PMID 847460.
  23. ^ [1] Archived 17 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Brisenden, Simon (1 January 1986). "Independent Living and the Medical Model of Disability". Disability, Handicap & Society. 1 (2): 173–178. doi:10.1080/02674648666780171.
  25. ^ "Disability and business: The new green". The Economist. 8 September 2012. Retrieved 26 April 2015.
  26. ^ Smith, Allan; Twomey, Breda (August 2002). "Labour market experiences of people with disabilities" (PDF). Labour Market Trends. 110 (8): 415–427.
  27. ^ "Definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010 - GOV.UK". 22 October 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  28. ^ "コアサーバー". Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  29. ^ "Home Office". Equalities. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  30. ^ "Previous Issues of The Bottom Line Online". Archived from the original on 20 March 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  31. ^ "AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT OF 1990, AS AMENDED" (PDF). Retrieved 14 January 2016.

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