Surrey Coalition of Disabled People

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Social Model of Disability

People with impairments often feel disadvantaged.

There are two different ways or ‘models’ that are used to explain what causes disadvantage for disabled people.

The Individual ‘medical’ model of disability

  • Focus is on the disability not the person
  • Disadvantage is a direct result of disability
  • Sends negative messages – it is the disabled person who:
    • Can’t climb stairs
    • Is sick or ill
    • Needs help
    • Can’t walk
    • Can’t hear or talk

The Social Model of Disability

  • Society is shown to disable people who have impairments because it presents barriers which prevent disabled people from taking part in every day life. These can be both physical and behavioral. If disabled people are to be able to join in mainstream society, the way society is organised must be changed. Removing the barriers which exclude (disable) people who have impairments can bring about this change creating a society that fits around the individual.
  • The key definitions in the Social Model are:
    • Impairment – an injury, illness or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a long term effect on physical appearance and/or limitation of function within the individual that differs from the commonplace
    • Disability – the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to social and environmental barriers
  • In the Social Model medical definitions of impairment and disability are combined as impairment, and disability is shown as being caused by barriers of social organisation taking little or no account of people who have impairments.
  • The Social Model focuses on the changes that need to be made by society such as changes in attitude, social support to overcome barriers and physical change to structures
  • A social model approach has been taken in the Disability Discrimination Act with regard to specific impairments but not in carrying out reasonable adjustments.

The Social Model has been defined by disabled people who feel that the individual or medical model does not provide an adequate explanation for their exclusion from mainstream society.

Their experiences have shown that in reality most of their problems are not caused by their impairments but by the way that society is organised

The sorts of barriers that can be put in place by social organisation include:

  • Prejudice and stereotypes
  • Inflexible organisational procedures and practices
  • Inaccessible information
  • Inaccessible buildings
  • Inaccessible transport

A social approach to disability is to identify and get rid of the disabling barriers within organisations, for example:-

  • Management practices
  • Lack of awareness and knowledge
  • Policy development
  • Systemic workplace cultures
  • The way that work is organised
  • Building design

In a nutshell …………….

  • Disability occurs when a person is excluded because of their impairment from something that other people in society take for granted
  • Society disables people not impairments or disability

The medical model is unhelpful because if focuses on the condition not the person, and can affect the way that disabled people think about themselves. A medical model approach can focus on a disabled person not being ‘normal’ and that it is their disability that prevents them from being included. People can become less of a person and more of a collection of symptoms that managers and staff feel they need to understand in detail, rather then focussing on removing the barriers.

The social model approach centres on the person not the disability.

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