The Social Model of Disability

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20 November 2017 by ATL
ATL Equality and Diversity Committee member, Jill Saunders discusses the impact of the social model of disability.  

Today I looked up the word ‘disability’ in the online Oxford Dictionary, here is what I found:



1          A physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.

‘children with severe physical disabilities’

[mass noun] ‘differing types of disability’

2          A disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law.

‘the plaintiff was under a disability’

As a disabled person living in this modern world, I found these definitions rather outdated and ‘limiting’ in their interpretation. So just what is the world like for disabled people today?

Probably the one area that is slowly changing is the adoption of the Social Model of Disability. As opposed to what, I’m sure many of you will be asking. 

The history of disability in its many guises is a long and interesting one. Disabled people have been labelled as many things: holy or special as well as all the informal names of cripple, spastic etc. Unfortunately, I don’t like being sealed into a box, so these labels have never really been appropriate. It was generally the medical model of disability that was behind these. 

According to the medical model, the problem of disability is located within the individual, i.e. a person is disabled due to their individual impairments and therefore requires medical interventions to provide the person with the skills to adapt to society. This model places individuals into medical categories for medical convenience. Doctors distribute categorical labels which carry social stigma, and these doctors tend to be the adjudicators for resources to assist people with impairments. The medical professionals own the knowledge and have the power to oppress people. This model was used to define ‘disability’ in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and later in the Equality Act 2010.

An example of this model would be a student living with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair. The student cannot gain access to a building because of the steps leading to the entrance. The medical model suggests cerebral palsy disables the student. If the disabled student didn’t need to use a wheelchair there wouldn’t be a problem.

The social model however, looks at things from a very different angle. Introduced in the mid 70’s by disabled lecturer Mike Oliver, it was built on a pamphlet produced by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPAIS) titled Fundamental Principles of Disability. 

The social model set out to oppose the medical model because of the oppression it inflicted on disabled people. The social model has been picking up momentum over the years and particularly in more recent years by human rights supporters for example.

So, what is the Social Model? Firstly, it makes a clear differentiation between impairment and disability. 

  • Impairment – Lacking part or all of a limb or having a deflective limb, organ or mechanism of the body (including psychological mechanisms).
  • Disability – The restrictions caused by the organisation of society which does not take into account individuals with physical or psychological impairments.

The social model suggests it is society that causes the individual with these physical or psychological differences to be disabled. In other words, individuals with impairments are not disabled by their impairments but by the barriers that exist in society which do not take into account their needs. These barriers can be divided into three categories: environmental, economic and cultural.

Looking back at the student described earlier, the social model would identify the steps as the disability not the student’s impairment. The disability only occurs when the student is excluded because of their impairment. If the building could be accessed by a ramp or a lift the student would still have an impairment but would no longer be disabled.

I think these diagrams show this difference clearly.

As a lecturer, I see more and more children being sent to special schools due to their impairments, but in fact all that needs to change is the access to the facilities in mainstream schools.

Therein lies one of the problems, schools and colleges are not funded to make these alterations and so it is easier to put disabled children into special schools, which at worst can limit their potential. 

I raised the social model of disability with my union following on from attending the TUC’s Disabled Workers Conference.  I saw first-hand just how much this model was enabling disabled workers to engage in the workplace and have the opportunities that others take for granted. The social model is now adopted as the model we use at the National Education Union.

It really is quite simple you know – disabled people just want to be able to live in a world that can see further than their impairment – we want to be accepted just like everyone else, a few alterations to the workplace and society and we really could begin to see a very different world. 

For now, I am content to talk about the social model with anyone who wishes to listen and get people to see the world from a slightly different perspective. 

Anyone want to borrow a wheelchair for a day and get around London? Good luck with the underground!

For more information on disability issues take a look at ATL’s guidance.

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