Redefining Disability: Moving from the Medical Model to the Social Model of Disability

Generally, words change their meaning over time. This change is often so subtle that there is no moment where we think of the word as incorrect or inappropriate, they just drift from public use and are consigned to the past.    

Sometimes though the change is so dramatic that several generations can be left struggling to come to terms with not just its use but also how they might replace it as incorrect use causes confusion and affront.

Nowhere has this been more apparent in the last few years than with the meaning or assumed meaning of the word “disability” or “disabled” and there is a good reason why.

Advances in medicine, technology, and design have meant that physical and mental challenges of traditionally disabled people are increasingly addressed by innovative pieces of equipment. However, they still find themselves more disabled by their environment and the attitudes of the people around them than by any condition they wake with in the morning.

 Visually impaired user with long cane being welcomed by staff when she enters the venue. Both physical and attitudinal barriers are removed so she can make her meeting. 

Visually impaired user with long cane being welcomed by staff when she enters the venue. Both physical and attitudinal barriers are removed so she can make her meeting. 

So what does the word “disabled” mean to you and how has its use changed over recent years?

For many, the term disabled relates directly to the person. This is called “The Medical Model” which as its name might suggest regards a person with a disability as a problem that needs to be fixed. It places the disability squarely on the shoulders of the person and refers to them as the source of the issue.

 

The Medical Model of Disability

The Medical Model sees the disabled person as the problem and says that they should adapt themselves to fit into the world around them. The focus is on the impairment, rather than the needs of the person and the power to change them lies within the medical world and its associated professions.

The model seemingly expects that people with disabilities should have low expectations for what they can achieve and that they should ultimately be dependent on organisations and individuals for help and support. Society puts a focus on compensating disabled people for what is ‘wrong’ with their bodies through special welfare benefits and segregated special services. There is an argument that this relationship has shaped the way many disabled people have been encouraged to perceive themselves as they internalise the negative message that their problems stem from something that they themselves are responsible for.

 An illustration of the Medical Model of Disability, seeing the individual as the problem. Source:  Democracy Disability and Society Group

An illustration of the Medical Model of Disability, seeing the individual as the problem.
Source: Democracy Disability and Society Group

Disabled people created a new model of thinking about disability as the traditional model didn’t explain their individual experience of disability and certainly did not encourage innovation in the area of inclusive living and equality: The Social Model. 

 

The Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of Disability states that disability is a result of the way society is organised, both physically through design and infrastructure and socially through its citizens understanding and education. The model looks at ways of removing these restrictions from society with good design and the education of its members. In a barrier-free environment, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with control over their own lives.

 An illustration of the Social Model of Disability, seeing societal barriers as the problem. Source:  Democracy Disability and Society Group

An illustration of the Social Model of Disability, seeing societal barriers as the problem.
Source: Democracy Disability and Society Group

Below are examples that show how physical or mental challenges are addressed under the Social Model:

  •  A person using a wheelchair wants to visit a cinema to enjoy a movie. To be able to do this they have to navigate stairs at the entrance. Under the Social Model solution, a ramp would have been added to the entrance so that the wheelchair user is free to go into the building without any difficulty at all.   
     
  • A young person with a visual impairment wants to read the latest best-selling book, so that they can chat about it with their sighted friends. A Social Model solution makes full-text audio recordings available when the book is first published.

 

Moving Towards Inclusion

As the Medical Model is highly discriminatory towards people with disabilities we have to focus on the Social Model of disability to inform how their needs and preferences can be met by society. Whether it is about designing buildings or training customer service staff, it is important to remove any social barriers that could exclude a growing part of the population.

At Neatebox, we create solutions that aim to remove both physical and attitudinal barriers to the independence of people with disabilities. Stay up to date and subscribe to our newsletter.