Social model of disability

The social model of disability identifies systemic barriers, derogatory attitudes, and social exclusion (intentional or inadvertent), which make it difficult or impossible for individuals with impairments to attain their valued functionings. The social model of disability diverges from the dominant medical model of disability, which is a functional analysis of the body as a machine to be fixed in order to conform with normative values.[1] While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not necessarily have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

A short government advisory animation on the social model of disability

The social model of disability is based on a distinction between the terms impairment and disability. In this model, the word impairment is used to refer to the actual attributes (or lack of attributes) that affect a person, such as the inability to walk or breathe independently. The word disability is used to refer to the restrictions caused by society when it does not give equivalent attention and accommodation to the needs of individuals with impairments.[2]

As a simple example, if a person is unable to climb stairs, the medical model focuses on making the individual physically able to climb stairs. The social model tries to make stair-climbing unnecessary, such as by replacing the stairs with a wheelchair-accessible ramp. According to the social model, the person remains impaired with respect to climbing stairs, but the impairment should no longer be considered disabling in that scenario, because the person can get to the same locations without climbing any stairs.

The origins of the approach can be traced to the 1960s, and the specific term emerged from the United Kingdom in the 1980s. According to Mike Oliver, the social model of disability was never meant to be an all-encompassing explanation of everything that a disabled person experiences.[3]