Social model of disability

Historically, disability has been defined and theorized using medical/psychological models, often without taking into account the actual experience of individuals with disabilities. The medical model assumes that the problem lies within the individual and, therefore, the individual must adapt to fit the environment. The social model of disability, however, focuses on removing societal barriers to ensure equal access and opportunities for choice and control. It’s not that simple, of course, but it is in stark contrast to the medical model 1.

To fully understand the social model of disability, it may be helpful to define some key terms:

  • Impairment is any abnormal or loss of function in the body or mind.
  • Functional limitation refers to a difficulty in completing tasks or activities.
  • Disability occurs when a functional limitation prevents an individual from carrying out an action, such as going to work or school.


Using these definitions, disability then becomes an experience between a person who has an impairment and the social environment. As an example, let’s think about this in terms of an individual who has paraplegia, or paralysis of the lower limbs of the body often the result of a spinal cord injury 2. Many people would say that paraplegia is the disability. But let’s rethink that a moment…

The impairment is the actual damage to the spinal cord, and the resulting functional limitations may include paralysis, or a loss of motor functioning. Disability, however, occurs when there is a negative interaction between the paralysis and the environment. Therefore, a paralyzed person who cannot use a stair entry into a building is disabled, but what if that person never encountered stair entries, only ramps or working elevators? Would we still consider that person disabled?

Please click on the video below to learn more about the social model of disability.

What are your thoughts? If you were to view disability through the social model of disability, rather than the medical model, how might it impact the way you:

  • Design your courses?
  • Administer an exam?
  • Make plans with friends?
  • Contribute to strategic or master plans?
  • Prepare for employment?



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