The Social Model of Disability


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History of the Social Model of Disability

People with physical and psychological impairments have been represented in many ways by western society over the years – as holy, special, and unfortunately also in many less respectful ways. Several models have characterised the history of disability in the West: The religious model, the medical/genetic model, and more recently the social/human-rights model (Clapton & Fitzgerald, 1997). These models or constructions of disability have had a powerful influence on setting the parameters for how people with impairments are treated by society. The most dominant of these models has been the medical model. This model arose along side and was fully supported by ground breaking advances in science and medicine. This gave the power and influence to the medical professions to dictate the lives of individuals with impairments.

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. The 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 professions own the knowledge and have the power to oppress people.

In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act defines disability using the medical model (Wikipedia, 2001). However the medical model was far from perfect and before long it came under scrutiny by many disabled rights activist groups. The result of these protests was the introduction of a new model designed to overcome the oppression felt by many a person with disabilities. This model was the social model or human-rights model. Equalities Online states that the Social Model of Disability was initially introduced in the mid-seventies by a “disabled” lecturer Mike Oliver. He adapted it from a booklet published by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPAIS) titled Fundamental Principles of Disability. The social model opposed the oppression inflicted by the medical model, shifting the blame of disability from the individuals with impairments to an unfair, and oppressive society.

Nowadays the social model has gained significant popularity, particularly amongst those traditionally labelled as “disabled”. With the support of many human rights groups, some of the barriers of disability enforced by the medical model have started to come down. However there is still a long way to go.

What is the Social Model of Disability?

The social model of disability is not a traditional diagrammatic model like many psychological and sociological models, but a progressive political concept that opposes the medical model commonly used in the health professions.

The Social model of disability makes an important distinction between the terms 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.
(UPAIS, 1976)

This distinction is embedded in social constructionism (a philosophical foundation of the social model), which states that these terms differ in that impairment exists in the real physical world and disability is a social construct that exists in a realm beyond language within a complex organisation of shared meanings, discourses and limitations imposed by the environment at a particular time and place.

The social model is a concept which recognises that some individuals have physical or psychological differences which can affect their ability to function in society. However 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, economical and cultural (British Council of Disabled People).

The environment disables impaired people by not being accessible enough for them to move, function and communicate as effectively as people without impairments. A great deal of the environment is designed by non-impaired people, for non-impaired living. For example, a person in a wheel chair is only ‘disabled’ if the environment is not designed for people with wheel chairs. A wheel chair friendly building would probably include ramps, lifts, wide door ways and corridors and accessible fittings such as light switches, and motorised doors etc. Whilst these modifications benefit people who use wheel chairs they can also benefit non-impaired people.

Economically, society does not provide the same opportunities to people with impairments. This starts at school and continues throughout one’s career. Disabled people are more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications, and only about half of impaired people of working age who can work are in work, compared with 80% of non disabled people of working age (Shaw Trust, 2005). At school, lessons are designed for non-impaired people, using environments and teaching methods that are not suitable for some individuals with impairments. For example a person with dyslexia has a learning disability only in a lesson structured for non-dyslexic students. If the lesson is taught in a way that suits people with dyslexia then they will not have a disability. The workplace and traditional job roles often do not suit people with impairments. Places of work are often unnecessarily inaccessible and people with impairments are often paid less then people without impairments.

Culturally, society lets impaired people down because of the prejudiced views and negative shared attitudes of the non-impaired community towards people with physical and psychological impairments. Prejudice is associated with the recognition of difference, and “disabled” people are not seen as normal in the eyes of “non-disabled” people (Swain, Finkelstein, French & Oliver, 1993). Prejudices are evident in language and the terminology used to describe people with impairments, much of which is derived from medical labels. People are more than just a label describing a negative attribute, and the stigma attached to those labels means that people with impairments are held back from achieving what they want to achieve. The mass media is also responsible for many of the shared negative meanings and discourses which create stereotypes and prejudices.

How does the Social Model of Disability apply to learning difficulties in higher education?

The social model of disability can be applied to neurodiversity in higher education. People with learning differences are subjected to the same economical, cultural and environmental barriers in higher education as people with physical impairments. Individuals with learning differences are often considered as “thick” or “in need of special assistance”, when really they may just not suit traditional learning techniques. The social model of dyslexia (Cooper, R. 2006) states that dyslexia is not a deficit but an experience that arises out of natural human diversity. Dyslexic people are likely to think visually or laterally in some learning situations where neuro-typicals would be more likely to think verbally or logically. Standard teaching methods do not usually incorporate teaching styles appropriate to dyslexic students, and may segregate them by teaching them in “special needs” classes.

The learning environments are not always suited to the neurologically diverse. Lecture theatres can be dark, noisy, lack power points for lap tops and other assistive technology, and lack room for this technology to be used. Lecturers do not always use handouts, diagrams and visual aids, do not always encourage discussion and often teach in a linear style more appropriate for neuro-typicals.

The education system in the UK generally does not cater for the diversity found amongst the population, and as a result neurologically diverse students are less likely to achieve than neurologically typical students. If students do not learn effectively in the ways set out for the neuro-typical student population they are seen as having a learning disability, which with the medical model is a problem located within the student, and not the learning environment.

Traditional learning procedures should be adapted to suit a wide variety of learning styles without segregating the neurologically diverse. Many of the adjustments made to include the neurologically diverse are equally likely to benefit the neurologically typical.

The Way Forward

Whilst the information in this text may seem somewhat negative it is certainly not all bad news. The social model of disability is starting to gain in popularity and influence, and Universities are improving in their teaching methods, facilities and support for neurologically diverse students. The Singleton report (1999) showed that 41% of students with dyslexia are likely to achieve “good” (1st or 2:1) degrees.

The level of awareness of dyslexia in higher education is much better, e.g. marking guidelines, better assistive technological products and alternative forms of assessment. We now need a similar level of awareness for other types of neurodiversity. Neurologically diverse students and staff have a great deal to offer.


British Council of Disabled People. (1981) The Social Model of Disability. Derby.

Clapton, J. & Fitzgerald, J. (1997) New Renaissance magazine: The History of Disability: A History of 'Otherness'. Vol 7, No 1.

Cooper, R. (2006) A Social Model of Dyslexia. London South Bank University.

Equalities Online. What is the Social Model?

Shaw Trust – Ability at work (2005) Disability and employment statistics.

Singleton, C. (1999) Dyslexia in Higher Education: policy provision and practice. The National Working Party on Dyslexia in Higher Education, The University of Hull.

Swain, J. Finklestien, V. French,S. & Oliver, M. (1993). Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments. SAGE: London.

UPIAS (1976) Fundamental Principles of Disability. Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation.

Wikipedia-The Free Encyclapedia (2001) The Social Model of Disability.


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