Crippen looks at the models of disability


A lot has been written and talked about regarding the Social Model understanding of disability. The academic Crips think that we should be moving on and have suggested some other frameworks with which to view disability. They feel that the Social Model is no longer valid and that it was only intended as a starting point anyway.

The problem as I see it, however, is that there are still millions of people out there who still haven’t heard of the Social Model, never mind anything new!

Most Disability Equality training is based around the Social Model concept, the Disability Rights Commission (remember them?!) based most of its recommendations on this Model. To change it now would probably send us back to the earlier days when the Medical or Individual Model was the only alternative.

For those of you who’re not familiar with these understandings of disability, here’s something about each one. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ve lifted the following information from an article by Richard Rieser, Director, Disability Equality in Education (DEE) who was writing for Inclusion Week back in 2002.

I make no apologies for its length, as I feel that it’s one of the best explanations currently available. I have to say that as I write in 2020 it is as valid as ever.

The Medical Model

The ‘medical model’ of disability sees the disabled person as the problem. We are to be adapted to fit into the world as it is. If this is not possible, then we are shut away in some specialised institution or isolated at home, where only our most basic needs are met. The emphasis is on dependence, backed up by the stereotypes of disability that call forth pity, fear and patronising attitudes.

Usually the focus is on the impairment rather than the needs of the person. The power to change us seems to lie within the medical and associated professions, with their talk of cures, normalisation and science. Often our lives are handed over to them.

Other people’s assessments of us, usually non-disabled professionals, are used to determine where we go to school, what support we get and what type of education; where we live; whether or not we can work and what type of work we can do and indeed whether or not we are born at all, or are even allowed to procreate. Similar control is exercised over us by the design of the built environment presenting us with many barriers, thereby making it difficult or impossible for our needs to be met and curtailing our life chances. Whether in work, school, leisure and entertainment facilities, transport, training and higher education, housing or in personal, family and social life, it is practices and attitudes that disable us.

Powerful and pervasive views of us are reinforced in the media, books, films, comics, art and language. Many disabled people internalise negative views of themselves that create feelings of low self-esteem and achievement, further reinforcing non-disabled people’s assessment of our worth. The ‘medical model’ view of us creates a cycle of dependency and exclusion, which is difficult to break.

‘Medical model’ thinking about us predominates in schools where ‘special educational needs’ are thought of as resulting from the individual who is seen as different, faulty and needing to be assessed and made as normal as possible. If people were to start from the point of view of all children’s right to belong and be valued in their local school we would start by looking at ‘what is wrong’ with the school and looking at the strengths of the child.

The Social Model

This second approach is based on the ‘social model’ of disability thinking which views the barriers that prevent disabled people from participating in any situation as what disables them. The ‘social model’ arises from defining impairment and disability as very different things.

Impairment and chronic illness exist and they sometimes pose real difficulties for us. The Disability Movement comprises those disabled people and their supporters who understand that they are, regardless of their particular impairment, subjected to a common oppression by the non-disabled world. We are of the view that the position of disabled people and the discrimination against us are socially created. This has little to do with our impairments. As a disabled person you are often made to feel it’s your own fault that you are different. The difference is that some part, or parts, of your body or mind are limited in their functioning. This is an impairment.

This does not make you any less of a human being. But most people have not been brought up to accept us as we are. Through fear, ignorance and prejudice, barriers and discriminatory practices develop which disable us. The understanding of this process of disablement allows disabled people to feel good about themselves and empowers us to fight for our human rights.

The disabled people’s movement believes the ‘cure’ to the problem of disability lies in the restructuring of society. Unlike medically based ‘cures’, which focus on the individual and their impairment, this is an achievable goal and to the benefit of everyone. This approach, referred to as the ‘social model’, suggests those disabled people’s individual and collective disadvantage is due to a complex form of institutional discrimination as fundamental to our society as sexism, racism or heterosexism.

In addition to this, the obsession with finding medically based cures distracts us from looking at causes of either impairment or disablement. In a worldwide sense, most impairment is created by oppressive systems – hunger, lack of clean water, exploitation of labour, lack of safety, child abuse and wars. Clearly, this thinking has important implications for our education system, particularly with reference to primary and secondary schools.

Prejudicial attitudes toward disabled people and, indeed, against all minority groups, are not inherited. They are learned through contact with the prejudice and ignorance of others. Therefore, to challenge discrimination against disabled people, we must begin in our schools.

Our fight for the inclusion of all children, however ‘severely’ disabled, in one, mainstream, education system, will not make sense unless the difference between the ‘social’ and the ‘medical’ or individual model of disability is understood.

Taken from an article by Richard Rieser, Director, Disability Equality in Education (DEE)

To find out more about Richard Rieser and the work of the DEE you can visit their website:


Description of cartoon for those people using screen reading software

A studious looking white male wheelchair user is holding out a piece of paper with ‘new theory’ written on it. At his feet a paper with ‘social model’ has been torn in two. A short, bald white male is looking in exasperation at him whilst alongside of him a blind man holding a braille manuscript is looking equally perplexed. The short male is saying to the wheelchair user: “But we’ve only just managed to get the social model understanding translated into braille!”

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