The social and medical model of disability

There are a number of ‘models’ of disability which have been defined over the last few years. The two most frequently mentioned are the ‘social’ and the ‘medical’ models of disability.

The medical model of disability views disability as a ‘problem’ that belongs to the disabled individual. It is not seen as an issue to concern anyone other than the individual
affected. For example, if a wheelchair using student is unable to get into a building because of some steps, the medical model would suggest that this is because of the wheelchair, rather than the steps.

The social model of disability, in contrast, would see the steps as the disabling barrier. This model draws on the idea that it is society that disables people, through designing everything to meet the needs of the majority of people who are not disabled. There is a recognition within the social model that there is a great deal that society can do to reduce, and ultimately remove, some of these disabling barriers, and that this task is the responsibility of society, rather than the disabled person.

Some examples of a medical model approach might be:

  • a course leader who refuses to produce a hand-out in a larger font for a visually impaired student. The student cannot therefore participate in the class discussion;
  • a member of staff who refuses to make available a copy of a PowerPoint presentation before a lecture. This creates a barrier to learning for the dyslexic students in the group who are likely to have a slower processing and writing speed and who will struggle to understand and record the key points;
  • a Students’ Union society that organises an event that is not accessible to disabled members.

This medical model approach is based on a belief that the difficulties associated with the disability should be borne wholly by the disabled person, and that the disabled person should make extra effort (perhaps in time and/or money) to ensure that they do not inconvenience anyone else.

The social model is more inclusive in approach. Pro-active thought is given to how disabled people can participate in activities on an equal footing with non-disabled people. Certain adjustments are made, even where this involves time or money, to ensure t disabled people are not excluded. The onus is on the organiser of the event or activity to make sure that their activity is accessible. Examples might be:

  • a course leader who meets with a visually impaired member of the group before the beginning of a course to find out how hand-outs can be adapted so that the student can read them;
  • a member of staff who makes PowerPoint presentations available on Blackboard to all members of the group before a lecture. This allows dyslexic students to look up unfamiliar terminology before the lecture, and gives them an idea of the structure that will be followed. This ‘framing’ helps students to understand and retain the information;
  • a Students’ Union society that consults with disabled members before organising an event in order to make sure that the venue is accessible.

Many people are willing to adopt the social model and to make adjustments for students who have a visible disability. However, they are not as accommodating with students who have a hidden disability, or a disability that is not clearly understood. An important principle of the social model is that the individual is the expert on their requirements in a particular situation, and that this should be respected, regardless of whether the disability is obvious or not.

The University of Leicester is committed to the more inclusive principles of the social model – see the University’s Disability Equality Scheme, pp.5-8, section 2.1.2. (26/01/07)
http://www.le.ac.uk/staffsupport/disequalscheme.html
Accessed 19/12/08

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