The Social Model of Disability


A disability model is a tool or framework to describe impairment and as a result give a starting point for a country’s administration as well as the society to come up with ways of providing for the needs of people with disability (MDRC 2007, p.1). There are various models of disability. According to the disability policy scholars, these disabilities are based on either the historical or the social model grounds. They range from medical, moral, rehabilitation and disability models.

Often, People with disability are treated with suspicion and doubt as though incomplete and not a reflection of the real human beings. The very competent and other people offer insufficient support amenities. According to Wendell (1996, P. 25) there has been a strong general inclination to make a sweeping statement about all persons with disabilities ignoring the great difference within the disabled hamlet. The social model of disability seek to change this negative attitude through having the society comprehend issues of disability, how to relate better with people with disability and how they are to be treated by the society in terms of access to employment, information and other basic needs as well as rights to political authority and power (Shakespeare and Watson 2000, p. 23).

This paper examines the social model of disability and the way it looks at disability in comparison to the medical model. It will also explain the consequence of downplaying the impact of impairment on daily life.

The Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability also known as minority group model was developed by people with disability in order to counter the medical model which made them feel socially excluded because of their disability and also the negative response society has on them. It came into being in the 1970’s through protesters of the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) (Shakespeare and Watson 2002, p.3). According to UPIAS; it is the society that disables people with physical impairment by secluding and excluding them from fully taking part in activities of the society (Oliver, 1996, 22). It came about as a different way to approach disability and do away with the old-fashioned way of thinking that centered disability to the individual without looking at the role of the society in contributing to disability. (White 2010, p. 1).The social model looks at disability from an environmental and socio-political point of view. The model view is that disability is a result of failure by the society to change and transform its systems so as to meet the needs and aspirations of both the able and the disabled people alike. The social model perceives that individuals with bodily or cerebral impairment are only disabled by the community in which they leave in, in that it creates barriers for them, discriminating them from participating in income generating projects and the social areas of life. These barriers exist in all areas and systems of the society; education, transportation, health and other public service areas. These system are only designed for people with fully functional and normal body organs gives people with disabilities very few opportunities to participate in normal life on an equivalent level with the other people and that is what disables them (MDRC 2007, P 2). An example would be a person on a wheel chair with an amputated limb is not able to go up a building through the stairs, if the architect of the building had thought of how a such person would access the top floors and constructed rum, and then this person would not have a problem.

The model emphasis is that people with impairments can improve their lives if provided with equal opportunities with others and all barriers are removed. The responsibility is placed on the society and not on the individual. Unlike the medical model that inspires fear and pity without providing a practical approach on how disabled people can be live their life fully, the social model focuses on instilling self esteem, self reliance and freedom of choice and discretion. This can only be achieved through changing the way the society is organized which dictates whether all people can access some services or are able to perform some activities or not (White 2010, p. 2)

It is generally believed that impairment causes disability, however, in the view of the social model of disability, it is the society by exclusion of an individual with impairment from something that other members of the society do that brings about disability. It believes that if the society is organized differently, then the people termed disabled can be enabled.

In most cases, people with impairment get used to living with it such that it is not an inability for them and therefore they can do whatever a normal person can do but only if given the opportunity and barriers that are put on their way by the society done away with.

People with some kind impairment are able to live a normal life with a little aid. vision impairments like long or shortsightedness is usually corrected with proper spectacles and people with this kind of impairment are able to live a normal life which would otherwise not be possible without the aid of spectacles. For this kind of impairment, the society has provided opticians and spectacles shops in many accessible places. Therefore, the society can always provide a remedy or alternatives to improve the lives of people with other different kinds of impairments. On the contrary, people still view use of aids as an inability in itself, but it’s evident that every person whether physically fit or not needs aid of some kind in everyday life. This aid varies from means of land transportation, electrical and electronic gadgets for transmission of messages just to mention a few.

For the social model, the focus is for the society to provide for the needs of the disabled people from their own point of view since they are the ones who know better what their needs are rather than the view that doctors and other physically normal people know what best suits the people with disabilities. (Kaplan 1999, p.2)

The one challenge that the social model of disability faces is the fact that people with disability are increasing in number with the increase of old people in the population. This makes it difficult for the society to restructure and for professionals to understand the concept so as to change their role from curing and caring to enabling people with disabilities take control of their lives (MDRC 2007, P. 3).

The model’s limitation is its failure to insist on other features of disability such as bodily and intellectual obstacles for example in most cases gadgets designed for white people with disability not applicable or accessible for black people with disability.

Unintended consequence of downplaying the impact of impairment on daily life

When an individual is impaired, it means that a part of his or her body, brain power or one or more of one’s senses is not working properly. For instance, an individual may be termed to be impaired if he or she has an amputated hand or leg. Other impairments include people who cannot remember things that they have learnt, those who are partially blind, the deafened and those who have been attacked by epileptic amongst others.

Unlike impairment, disability occurs when a person is exempted from what the rest of people in the society collectively partake because of their impairment (Shakespeare and Watson 2000, p. 19). The disabled persons may not get a chance to be present in events or even get involved in occupations. The disabled people ends up not being informed, most do not earn a good living and even cannot make independent choices.

A wrong assumption may be made when one assumes that disability is caused by impairment. The social model or the civil rights model can be described as one of the main perspective of disability (Shakespeare 2006, p. 29). For example a person whose hearing has been impaired may wish to attend a discussion but he or she may find no significance of attending the meeting if a sign language translator or loop for a hearing assistance is absent. The person in this case ends up being excluded from the discussion and thus judged to be disabled. It is therefore the choices made by the society that forms a basis of disability because the person perceived to be disabled can actively participate in the discussions like any other person as long as there is a provision of a sign language translator alongside the speakers or even a loop for a hearing (Shakespeare and Watson, 2000). These persons are therefore not disabled despite having hearing impairment. Another example which illustrates that persons who are impaired are not necessarily disabled is for instance in regard to the wheelchair users who wish to board a bus. These persons would be fine and would not be viewed to have disabilities if the buses were made in such a way that they are accessible and have room to accommodate these persons. Similarly provision of information in tapes for the visually impaired persons would enable them to get wind of what the council is doing and therefore may not be termed to be disabled.

An employee may have a deficiency which is not considerably limiting, but the employer ends up treating the employee as having impairment (UN 2006, p. 12). For instance, a wage earner may have a manageable hypertension that does not affect his working capabilities. His manager may consider the wage earner to be disabled and end up giving him a lesser taxing task in fear of the person getting a heart attack.

In addition an individual may have an impairment which is considerably limiting as per the colleagues view. An experienced wage earner having a mark on his face may fail to be promoted to the front office and instead remain in the stores. The employer ends up discriminating the experienced employee since he or she believes that the customers would not wish to be served or look at the person. The manager thus considers his employee as a disabled person when he is actually not. An Employee may have no impairment at all but the employer regards him or her to be impaired. For instance, unverified reports may be broadcasted all over that a wage earner is suffering from HIV. The employer ends up discharging the employee despite the employee having no impairment (Disabilities act 1992, p 28).

According to Verbrugge and Jette (1994, p.5), the model highlights a diminishing social and physical obstacles to inclusion. Emphasis on impairment gives rise to disabled persons feeling different from the standard pattern of behavior. The persons have an insufficient sensation which makes them experience prejudice. Morris (1993, p.172) argued that social perspective has value though within it there is a general inclination to downplay the actual occurrence of the “physical restriction or pain of the body”.

The extent of disability is a consequence of the mutual effect between impairment and features of the affected person’s physical, social and cultural environment in which one dwells (Wendell 1996, p.22). Studies have shown that researchers who argue for the social model of disability perceive environmental factors as the backbone behind disability having a great jeopardy of downplaying the communal effect on impairment and its impact on ones effectiveness and good health or fortune (Waddington and Diller 2002; Shakespeare 2006 p.16).

In relation to the studies and researches carried out, the convection on the rights of persons with disabilities (1996) made a sweeping statement that had two major unintended consequences of downplaying the impact of impairment on daily life. These were “discrimination and the lack of accessible and usable environments” (Waddington and Diller 2002). For instance, the disabled persons are discriminated from employment opportunities which in turn suppress them from social services which can provide one with a means of enjoying a liberated everyday life. Many disabled people thus do not want to consider themselves as disabled because of the stigma associated and disability. The able people see disabled persons as disabled in all aspects of life and fail to notice ways that they are able. This has a great impact in that these disabled people fail to benefit from government set benefits for disabled due to fear of stereotype by the society. Discussions have been raised entailing income transfer systems and employment-promotion of the disabled (Waddington and Diller 2002). This would revitalize the social-liberal recognition. In addition, from the discussions, the disabled would not only have their rights but also have duties relative to the community in which they leave in. A powerful legal safeguard against discrimination and inaccessibility has the ability to reinforce further the range covered for involvement and agency on the disabled. A disabled woman who is pregnant would wish for care pointing towards a reduction between their capabilities and the forceful request set to them by environment. These demands vary from emergency treatments, drugs, manner of living and behavior change (Waddington and Diller 2002). With adoption of personal assistance, the environmental demands can greatly be reduced. Consideration of the hindering factors can reduce nervousness and may improve the consequences for the woman who wishes to become a parent.


The social model of disability began as a framework to understand the issues surrounding disability from the perspective of a person with impairment contrary to the old and common medical model which used the doctors’ perspective to understand and deal with disability. From the social model view, society causes disability for people with impairment and not the impairment. By not providing a way for people with a certain kind of impairment to access equal opportunities as normal people, segregating them and treating them with stigma and stereotype, the society disables them. It was therefore the aim of the disabled people who developed the social model of disability to educate and tell the world that all they need is to be enabled through restructuring the society systems for them to fit in and their needs to be provided for from their point of view and not from a normal persons point of view. With this model, a lot of awareness has been created and in the developed countries, systems like buildings and education have been restructured to have persons with impairments access these services. This model faces the challenges of an increase in the number of disabled people especially in societies where majority of the population is aged.

The very fit or able persons are rarely trained in the accessibility in matters relating to or involving both the social and political factors. It is therefore with great desires that the material presented in this paper will avert the teething troubles described by the disabled such as unsuitable languages, sometimes immaterial actions affecting their affairs and incomplete judgments. The disabled in our societies needs to be noticed and have a caring bread winner who pays attention. The disabled too needs among others practical information and support.

List of References

Disabilities Act (1992). Technical Assistance Manual on the Employment Provisions (Title I) of the Americans with Disabilities Act, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Section 2.2(c), p. 20-28.

Kaplan, D. (1999). Definition of Disability, World Institute of Disability (WID).

MDRC, Michigan Disability Rights Coalition (2007). Models of disability. Web.

Morris J. (1993). Fighting back: In Pride and Prejudice: Transforming attitudes to disability. London: Women’s press, p. 169-189.

Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding disability: from theory to practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Shakespeare and Watson, N. (2000). The Social Model of Disability, an outdated Ideology; Research in Social Science and Disability’ Volume 2, pp. 9-28.

Shakespeare T. (2006). Disability rights and wrongs, London: Routledge.

UN (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol, New York: United Nations.

Verbrugge L.M and Jette A.M (1994). The Disablement process. Soc Sci. Med; 38: 1-14.

Waddington, L. & Diller, M. (2002). ‘Tensions and coherence in disability policy: the uneasy relationship between social welfare and civil rights models of disability in American, European and international employment law’, in Breslin, M. L. & Yee, S. (eds.) Disability rights law and policy, Ardsley, NY: Transaction Publishers.

Wendell S. (1996). The rejected body: New York: Routledge, p. 22-29.

White, P. (2010). The Social Model of Disability, British Red Cross UK Office, 44 Moor fields, London.