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The Social Model of Disability:

Development of the social model of disability

In the early 1970s, disabled people used their personal experience of disability and institutional life to show that it wasn't their impairments, which caused the 'problem', but the way in which society failed to make any allowances for their differences and shut them away instead. This way of thinking about, analysing and discussing disability became known as 'The Social Model of Disability'. It explains disablement as the result of any behaviour or barriers, which prevent people with impairments choosing to take part in the life of society.

The social model does not wish to deny the existence of impairments and physiological differences - far from it; rather it addresses them without attaching value judgments such as 'normality' and shifts the emphasis towards those aspects of our world that can be changed. Therefore, we believe that using the social model will help you to implement the Disability Discrimination Act more effectively.

The causes of disability

The Disability Discrimination Act says that the inability to carry out activities is caused by an impairment or impairments; for example, you are not mobile because you have a spinal injury. This understanding of disability is said to be a medical model of disability because the causes of disability are attributed only to medical conditions.

The Act specifies that a person has a disability if she or he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term effect on her/his ability to carry out normal day to day activities if it affects one or more of the following:

The social model is not limited by such a narrow description of activities. It takes the wider view that the ability to undertake such activities is dependent upon social intervention. It can show that the limitation of activity is not caused by impairments but is a consequence of social Organisation - hence the phrase 'social model'. For example, your ears don't work and you cannot hear (impairment): but you cannot participate in meetings because you have not been provided with a British Sign Language Interpreter (you are disabled by a failure of social Organisation).


Because the medical model uses impairment to account for disability, other words, such as 'discrimination', must be used to address the fact that many people with impairments are not getting jobs and are prevented from participating in politics, social events and the life of the community in general. But, by saying that 'disability' (the inability to participate) is caused by impairments, means that people with impairments will always be seen as being inferior, or second rate, or inherently flawed. In this way discrimination becomes something which is done to 'limited' people who cannot carry out 'normal' activities.

The social model does not need a separate notion of discrimination because the model already focuses on those aspects of society, which disable people; discrimination and disability become one and the same thing. For example, because an employer will not provide sufficient training and support for a person with learning difficulties the employer is discriminating against and disabling her or him.

In short, the social model says that a person is disabled if the world at large will not take into account their physical or mental differences.

Consequences of using the medical model

There are three unintended consequences which flow from using a medical model of disability.

Firstly, because the medical model says that a person is disabled if her/his impairment has an effect on her/his "activities", it does not take into account the many social factors which may also have an effect on "day-to-day activities". For example, although an impairment can have an adverse effect on a person's walking, other social factors, such as the design of transport systems, will also have an equal if not greater adverse effect on their mobility.

Secondly, the medical model puts a value judgment on activities; for example, by saying that it is "normal" to hear, speak or see, the Act is stating, by omission, that activities such as using British Sign Language, Text phones and Braille are abnormal.

Thirdly, the medical model allows a spurious distinction to be made between those things which state, financial and industrial organisations will be held responsible for and those things which they will not be held responsible for. For example, such organisations will be responsible for individual prejudicial behaviour; or minor architectural barriers, or slight rigidities in job design.

They will not be held responsible for:

The systematic exclusion of disabled people from mainstream education (Barnes, 1991, pp 28 - 6 1);

The systematic undermining of disabled individuals in hospitals and residential Homes (Hunt, 1966, pp. 153 - 154);

The way in which social pressures drive some disabled people to commit suicide. (Morris, 1992, pg.2);

The manufacture of disablement itself (Swain et al., 1993).

Reasonable Adjustments

By introducing the idea of 'reasonable adjustment' and thus legislating for changes to (or "adjustments" to) social practices and built environments the Disability Discrimination Act does acknowledge the disabling aspects of social Organisation. However, because the Act also claims that disability is caused by impairment and because it does not point out the disabling effects of social practices and built environments, it encourages disabled peoples' legitimate requests for adjustments to be thought of as unrealistic demands to accommodate the abnormal. Alternatively, use of the social model of disability will mean that adjustments to reduce the disabling effects of society can become subject to comprehensive analysis, discussion and the setting of realistic priorities

Further reading and references

Barnes, C. (I 992), Disabling Imagery and the Media, (Halifax, Rybum).

Barnes, C. (I 99 1), Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination: A casefor Anti-Discrimination Legislation, London, Hurst/CaIgary.

Barton, L. (I 989), Disability and Dependence, (Lewes, Faimer).

Davis, K. (1993), On the Movement, in: Swain, J,.Finkelstein, V., French, S., and Oliver, M (eds) Disabling Barriers - Enabling Environments, (London, Sage in association with the Open University).

Dreidger, D. (1989), The Last Civil Rights Movement, (London, Hurst and Co.).

Finkelstein, V. (I 980), Attitudes and Disabled People, (Geneva, World Health Organisation).

Hunt, P. (ed) (I 966), Stigma: The Experience of Disability, (London, Geoffrey Chapman).

Laurie, L. (1991), Building Our Lives: Housing, Independent Living and Disabled People, (London, Shelter).

Morris, J. (I 99 1), Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability, (London, The Women's Press).

Morris, J. (1992), Disabled Lives, (London, BBC Education).

Oliver, M. (I 983), Social Work with Disabled People, (London, Macmillan).

Oliver, M. (I 990), The Politics of Disablement, London, Macmillan.

Oliver, M. and Bames, C. (I 99 1), Discrimination, Disability and Welfare: From Needs to Rights, in: Bynoe, I., Oliver, M., and Bames, C., Equal Rights and Disabled People: The Case for a New Law, (London, Institute of Public Policy Research).

Swain, J. Finkelstein, V. French, S. and Oliver, M. (eds) (1993), Disabling Barriers - Enabling Environments, (London, Sage in association with the Open University).