Disabled people have long been told that we are less than. It has been said that our bodies and brains are defective and need to be fixed or cured, and our inability to fully participate in society is due to our flaws and our disabilities. For far too long disabled people have been regarded as second-class citizens. These negative messages we’ve been fed are often internalized, creating even further barriers to societal participation.
However, many disabled people are pushing back against this narrative, asserting our rights and challenging the perceptions of how many people view disability in today’s society. Many disability advocates are trying to make a push away from the medical model of disability which asserts that disabled people are the problem, and towards the social model of disability, which states that society has an overarching responsibility to be inclusive.
The medical model of disability utilizes terms such as disease, disorder, and dysfunctional to categorize the traits, abilities, or barriers disabled people have. It looks at what is wrong with the person, rather than looking at their needs, and it leads to low expectations for disabled people. As such, it also often leads to a loss of independence and choice over our lives.
The medical model of disability says that people are disabled by their differences, and that those differences should be attempted to be fixed or altered using medical or other treatments, even if the person’s disability does not cause any illness or pain. The medical model values what’s wrong with the person over their needs.
On the other hand, the social model of disability says that disability is a result of the way society is organized. The social model of disability does not pathologize individual challenges, but rather, it says what disabled people can do in addition to their disability. The social model of disability is a means of viewing the world, developed by disabled people.
It says that people are disabled by societal barriers rather than by their differences. These barriers can be attitudinal, as in peoples’ attitudes towards differences, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things or assuming all disabled people face the same challenges or have the same traits. They can also be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets or ramps.
The social model of disability helps us identify barriers that make life more difficult for disabled people, and eliminating those barriers can create a greater sense of choice, control, independence, and equality for disabled people.
The medical model says that disability is rooted in abnormality or deficiency, whereas the social model of disability says that disability is just another form of human variation, just as someone’s race or gender.
The medical model postulates that being disabled should be viewed as negative, while the social model indicates that being disabled is an inherent part of someone’s being.
The medical model says that disability is a problem within a person, whereas the social model states that disability relates to both the individual and their place in society, with disability stemming from disabled people trying to participate in a society which is inaccessible to them.
The medical model aims to fix disability through medical interventions by attempting to make disabled people appear more typical, while the social model asserts that the real solution can be found if changes are made in the interactions between society and disabled people.
The medical model says that disabled people can only find the help we need to be “fixed” and to assimilate and be accepted into society if we seek professional support. Conversely, the social model says that disabled people are our own experts.
A couple of scenario examples of the medical model versus the social model of disability within society are:
A disabled young adult wishes to work towards living independently in their own home, but they are unsure how to do tasks like pay the bills and open a checking account. Under the medical model of disability, it might be expected that the person would live in a communal home, with someone completing these tasks for them. However, under the social model of disability, they would get the support they need to pay their bills and open a checking account, so they may live independently.
A wheelchair user wants to enter a building, but the building has a series of steps at the entrance. Under the medical model, there would be very few solutions to allow the wheelchair user to climb the stairs, as many buildings don’t have lifts, excluding wheelchair users from many activities. The social model of disability would allow for a ramp to be added to the entrance so that the wheelchair user can enter the building as they desire, without any extra mechanisms needed.
These are just two examples of a wide variety of scenarios experienced by disabled people on a regular basis, and hopefully they show that how we view disability matters. It’s dehumanizing for disabled people to encounter a world not meant for us, and it’s disheartening when things are designed that don’t take our basic needs into consideration.
These two models of disability don’t exist completely separate from one another, and they’re often interdependent. We can’t focus primarily on deficits, as that results in prejudice, discrimination, and unequal rights. It’s also not about neglecting the challenges that disabled people often face. It’s about ensuring accessibility, choices, and resources, and acknowledging that everyone’s needs should be embraced as a collaborative part of the community.