Disability 101: Understanding the Social Model of Disability

Often times, the most difficult part of solving a problem, a social problem or others, is about framing it in the right way. If you are dealing with a situation, but you misidentify the source of the conflict or barrier, then any solution becomes impossible, or at least incomplete. The same is true of discussion of disability justice and issues of equality.

Many of the conflicts that arise between abled communities and mindsets, and disabled ones step from different framings of the problem. While many different constructs and models exist, the two mainly accepted ones are the Medical Model and the Social Model.

To understand both models, you have to start with understanding the difference between impairment and disability.

Impairment is a loss or deviation of normative physiological, psychological, or anatomical structure or function that can be caused by injury, illness, or congenital condition.  It’s the description of what is happening in your body. So for example in the case of deafness, the impairment is a loss of hearing caused by x factor. Or in the case of my arthritis, it is the physical damage to my hip and the inflammation in the joint, caused by my arthritis.

Disability in turn is the restriction or inability to perform certain tasks or activities.

Under the Medical Model of Disability, disability is caused by your impairment. You are unable to perform the task because of some personal deviation from the norm. Put another way, I am disabled because I am unable to walk.

This model of disability puts the blame for an inability to participate fully in society as being the fault of a “lack” within the person. It treats accessibility as special treatment because it is something done to fix something that is wrong.

This model prioritizes eliminating disability by eliminating impairment either through finding a cure, or by preventing the impairment from ever occurring. The extremes of this model are Eugenics, which seeks to eliminate disability by eliminating fetuses and babies that show signs of being born with certain conditions or impairments, and preventing disabled people from being able to pass on their genetics through forced sterilization. This model gives birth to hate organizations like Autism Speaks. It presumes that impairment is inherently miserable.

The Social Model of Disability, however, reframes the problem where disability is caused not by the impairment but rather by the way society is structured and organized. The disability or the inability to perform certain tasks or activities is because of the way our society works, how we put it together, what we treat as the standard versus the exceptional.

What does this mean exactly?

Let’s look at one of the more recognizable examples of a disabled person: someone who uses a wheelchair to get around.

Under the medical model of disability, the reason a person in a wheelchair is disabled is because they are unable to walk and so they HAVE to use a wheelchair. The wheelchair is seen as being a prison. The situation they are in is inherently bad.

Under the social model of disability, the reason a person in a wheelchair is disabled is because our society has designed our cities, our homes, our businesses, to not make wheelchair access a priority. The barrier isn’t the wheelchair but the stairs. The wheelchair isn’t a trap, it is freedom. Rather the trap is a lack of ramps and elevators. A lack of doorways wide enough to accommodate the wheelchair. A lack of store displays that take into account maneuverability by a wheelchair or mobility device. The impairment isn’t inherently bad but rather what is bad is the fact that we treat the person with it as if it is.

Why does this matter?

As mentioned before, the way we frame the problem determines the way we determine solutions. Our society has used the Medical model for generations, which frames the problem as coming from disabled individuals themselves. It prioritizes separating society from the burden that is disability by eliminating disabled people themselves. What do I mean by this?

I mean that the majority of our social resources goes towards eliminating disability and preventing it from impacting society in any way. Disabled children are removed from “normal” children’s classrooms. Disabled adults are kept from being able to achieve independence, by being restricted access to jobs, or the means to support oneself and thrive. Disability support programs offer bare minimum help – enough not to completely starve to death but not enough to be able to be a part of society either.

The focus instead is on eliminating all appearance of impairment, even when a cure isn’t possible. This leads to conversion type therapies which instead of focusing on making gay kids straight, instead focuses on making autistic kids appear allistic. Deaf people who aren’t given the opportunity to find Deaf Communities are expected to undergo speech therapy and to focus on reading lips. Disabled individuals are forced to change themselves, often painfully, in order to make non-disabled individuals feel more comfortable.  Accessibility is considered “special needs” which is in turn perceived as special treatment.

With the Social Model of Disability, the focus instead becomes on actually integrating disabled people into society. It’s about letting autistic people be themselves and instead work with the autistic person to be able to function to the best of their ability: whether this means letting them work on their own instead on a group project, incorporate stimming into the way the classroom is set up and so forth. It is about teaching hearing children and adults the appropriate sign language for the region they’re in so that it isn’t up the Deaf person to have to undergo either painful treatments or go through speech therapy if they can’t or don’t want to. The social model of disability puts the onus on change on inaccessible society rather than on the person who has an impairment.

But isn’t that forcing a bunch of people to go out of their way just to accommodate one person? Why do disabled people get to have special treatment?

The chance to view something as special treatment is a privilege. What I mean by that is – the reason you are able to function in society the way you do is because society is set up for YOUR benefit. We’ve defined a certain standard of behavior and decided that anyone unable to function outside of these narrow parameters is lacking rather than just different. The ability to stay still and seated for certain times each day, the ability to take certain types of tests, to memorize information, to see letters in a certain way, to hear voices and sounds in a certain way, to be able to employ motor functions in certain ways, all of these were set as the code of behaviors that we deem acceptable.

Disability comes when people are unable to function within those narrow confines. This inability is deemed as a deviation rather that address the fact that the parameters are needlessly restrictive.

What if instead we created a world that accommodated different ways of being? Imagine a classroom where students had access to both a noise room and a quiet room to work in, and they could come and go and choose as they please? Imagine having access to different styles of chair to fit what they feel most comfortable sitting in, or have the option to stand or kneel or even pace. Imagine if schools made it possible for you to learn in different ways so that you could get information in the ways that work best for you, and if you could present your gained knowledge in the way most comfortable for you.

What about cures? That’s a deeper discussion, and the mismanagement of it is used to create divisions even with disabled communities. It is part of the reason why sometimes chronically ill people and people who suffer from certain illnesses are sometimes not considered “real disabled” because they don’t fit the surface idea of the Social Model, however, I intend to write a more in depth post about the issue. Let me summarize for now by saying that it ultimately comes down to bodily autonomy. Some people might want a “cure” and others might not, but regardless of their choice, they should never be punished for it. In an inaccessible world, the cure is forced on us. Moreover, a search for a cure should not take the place of making people thrive now. If we wait for a cure to help people, then we are choosing to disable people needlessly while we wait, when we have the ability to help them NOW.

Moreover, our world will never completely eliminate disability unless you just kill everyone as soon as they show any signs of impairment. That is the only way to get rid of disability under the medical model of disability. But under the social model of disability we can eliminate what disables us, without eliminating US.

If you don’t believe that the world is set up to privilege abled people consider the fact, that those accessibility measures that have become the most integrated within our society, those that are most likely to be used if any, are those that most obviously also benefit abled people.

Elevators provide an accessible means of reaching higher floors from people who cannot use stairs. The reason the elevator became as widespread as it did though was because of how much use abled people got out of it. Even people who preferentially take the stairs benefit from elevators since they help you move heavy items which might be impossible to take up a set of stairs, to higher floors. Similarly ramps benefit people who use shopping carts, or moving dollies, or take children out in strollers – although even here there is often a fight to get them installed.

Once accessibility measure that has become so widespread that we’ve forgotten that it is accessibility is eye glasses, and the main reason for that is that enough people suffer from this impairment that it has become “normal”. Most people will wear some type of eyewear in their lifetime, either for near-sightedness or far-sightedness, reading glasses, bifocals, and sunglasses, all of these are means to correct for some sort of impairment. And yet, we don’t really see poor eyesight (within reason) a disability because we’ve integrated the accessibility measure into our society. Go somewhere where glasses are not readily available, and you will see how much this is not the case. Spent time with someone who cannot afford glasses and again you will see a difference.

Other examples of accessibility also benefit more people that just those we immediately think of. Sign language becoming more commonly spoken would be helpful for people who need to communicate in noisy environments where oral communication can be nearly impossible. It is a great way to keep a place silent when people are trying to study, or nap, or otherwise. It is a way to communicate if you are currently non-verbal for a variety of reasons.

Similarly, employing email and online communication in doctors’ offices would make it easier for people who are Hard of Hearing to book appointments. It would also make things easier for people who lost their voice due to a cold, people who can’t get to a phone easily during work hours, people who suffer from phone related anxieties, etc. etc.

Like with every other branch of social justice, the work to implement justice for oppressed group x, ultimately benefits everyone else in society: Feminism helps men, Gender activism and challenging cis sexism helps cis people, and creating an accessible society helps abled people too.

But ultimately, it’s not about you. It’s not about abled people. Even if accessibility helped only one person it would still be worth it – if we intend for that person to be treated as a full person and human being. Because ultimately that’s what it comes down to. Special needs are not special but needs. They are what is needed for a person to be able to be a full member of society. A full human person.

As long as accessibility is the exception and not the standard, as long as disabled people are seen as being the problem for existing rather than the problem being the way in which society artificially excludes them, disabled people will continue to be disabled.

My problem isn’t being unable to walk. My problem is that our society has decided that being unable to walk HAS to mean being unable to experience what our world has to offer, when that doesn’t actually have to be the case.

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Disability 101: Understanding the Social Model of Disability

4 thoughts on “Disability 101: Understanding the Social Model of Disability

    1. 2.1

      I guess the author is unfamiliar with Beethoven who not only experienced brilliant symphonies while deaf, he even WROTE them.

      Apparently it is insulting of me to imply that deaf and blind people are not inherently flawed and could prefer to remain deaf and blind than to have their impairment removed entirely. I’m also not saying that no blind or deaf person could ever want a cure, I’m saying that the desire to have a cure should not be the result of social punishment for being disabled. If the decision is motivated by the fact that the world they live in is inaccessible, then even if they are aware of the fact that this is why and that it is the result of social ableism, the decision is still not coming from a socially ethical place even if it is from a personally ethical place.

      Every person has the right to make the best decision for themselves and for their own safety, but when it is a response to their own safety being threatened for not making that choice, then how is it anything other than extortion and blackmail?

      You must cure your deafness (and society often wants your Deafness ‘cured’ too) or else you will be the victim of violence, harassment, and discrimination. Oh also you will be forced into social isolation and poverty Sounds really fair doesn’t it.

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