The Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability helps us see disability as a social issue. It shows how society and its rules can make life harder for disabled people.  

Why we use the Social Model of Disability

This approach is about making society more inclusive for everyone. Instead of thinking that someone’s impairment or condition is their problem, we look at how society can be unfair, often putting us at a disadvantage or excluding us altogether. 

For example, when a disabled person is trying to find a job, we don’t say, “They can’t find a job because they are disabled.” Instead, we say, “They have trouble finding a job because some employers discriminate against them, and many workplaces are not accessible to them.” 

Discriminatory practices might involve several aspects. It might be assuming what a job seeker can or cannot do without any proof. It can also relate to not considering fair accommodations, such as allowing the person to work from home or have split shifts. 

Differences between the Social Model and the Medical Model of Disability

The social model is the opposite of the better-known medical model. The medical model mainly looks at a person’s impairment or health condition as their own issue that needs fixing or treatment. For the past century many people, both disabled and non-disabled, have followed this medical model mindset. It has mainly focused on trying to find a ‘cure’ or providing assistive devices just for the individual. 

The social model doesn’t aim to ignore the reality of individual experiences of disabled people, many of whom may indeed experience pain or suffering. Rather, it encourages us to change as a society, to be more inclusive and accommodating, so that everyone can participate equally. 

How the Social Model encourages change

The social model urges us to transform our society to be more welcoming and adaptable so that everyone, no matter their personal situation, can join in equally. This might involve things like making buildings accessible, promoting positive attitudes and awareness, and ensuring that laws and policies protect the rights of all individuals. 

In summary, the social model shifts the focus from the individual’s impairment or condition to the ways society can be improved to embrace and support diversity and inclusion. It aims to create a more accessible and equitable world for everyone. 

Awareness of limitations in the Social Model

We recognise that not all Disabled people identify with the social model of disability; it is not without limitations. We respect the reality of individuals and their right to self-identify, using language that they are most comfortable with. 

The Social Model in practice: an example

Sujata is visually impaired and has difficulty seeing.

The social model would look at the barriers and challenges Sujata faces beyond the visual impairment itself.

Illustration of a woman of colour walking with a white cane.

Information Accessibility

In this digital age, a lot of information is conveyed through visual means, such as websites, graphics, or charts. However, for Sujata, accessing this information can be challenging. The social model suggests that society should ensure that information is available in alternative formats. These could be audio descriptions or text-to-speech software, so that Sujata can have equal access to information. 

Employment Opportunities

Sujata might face difficulties in finding employment not because of their visual impairment but due to employers’ attitudes and prejudices towards disabled people. The social model encourages society to adopt inclusive hiring practices, provide necessary accommodations, and challenge discriminatory beliefs to give everyone an equal opportunity to work. 

Public Transportation

 Navigating public transportation can be challenging for Sujata, as there might be insufficient or unclear information for people with visual impairments. The social model advocates for improving the accessibility of public transport by providing audio announcements, tactile maps, and well-designed infrastructure. 

Social Stigma

Sujata may encounter social stigma or misconceptions about blindness, leading to them being treated differently or underestimated. This is often referred to as attitudinal barriers. The social model promotes raising awareness and educating the public to break down stereotypes and foster a more inclusive and understanding society. 

Education

In the education system, Sujata might face barriers like inaccessible textbooks or limited support for their specific needs. The social model encourages the implementation of inclusive education practices. These might include providing accessible materials and assistive technologies, to ensure that Sujata can fully participate in learning. 

In each of these examples, the social model highlights that the challenges faced by Sujata are not solely due to their visual impairment. They are heavily influenced by the way society is organised and the attitudes of others. By addressing these social and environmental barriers, we can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for individuals with any type of impairment or condition. 

How we use Social Model language  

At Inclusion Barnet, we use language which reflects this model of disability e.g., ‘disabled people’ not ‘people with disabilities’. This reflects our belief that people are disabled by the society they live in, not simply by their impairment or condition.  

Language matters, as when negative phrases are repeated over time, they can influence our perception of a situation and hinder progress towards equality. 

An example of some of the key phrases we use to replace common non-social model expressions: 

Social model  Not social model 
Disabled people  People with disabilities 

The disabled 

Non-disabled people  Able-bodied people  
I/they have a condition/impairment  I/they have a disability 
… because of their condition/impairment  … because of their disability/ies 
People with Learning Disabilities  People with Learning Disabilities (the one exception) 

The Social Model: resources

Important: The resources shared here are for informational purposes only. They do not constitute professional advice, official endorsement, or any form of legal or medical guidance.  

We have listed here links to various resources where you can learn more about the social model of disability and examples of it. 

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