What is disability? Social vs Medical model

I touched on this very briefly in my podcast interview and in yesterday’s post about whether or not I’m disabled, but I’d like to go a bit more in depth because I think there’s a lot to explore about the nature of society and what a disability actual is. So, welcome to my entirely biased blog post about the social vs medical model of disability.

The medical model of disability is one that most people are familiar with. A disability is some sort of defect or impairment that stops someone from living a ‘normal’ life. An autistic person can’t socialise like a non-autistic person, therefore they have a disability. Get the idea? Right.

It’s all too easy to dehumanise a group if you are taught that they are less than you. They are a broken version of you. They live a tragic life and they need your pity. No wonder ableism is so rife.

The medical model of disability is the one that leads us to believe disability is a tragedy and that we need to a find cure. It’s the one you see in adverts with the crying kids and the slow piano music and the please-text-this-number-to-make-a-donation. In the medical model of disability, a disabled person is devalued because of their inability to function as a ‘normal’ person.

The social model of disability is less well known. In this model, the person is disabled by a society that doesn’t accommodate their differences rather than disabled by a condition or difference. If society were changed to accommodate these differences by moving the emphasis from the disability to the lack of accommodations in society, disabled people are placed on a level playing field with non-disabled people in terms of value. We wouldn’t be lagging behind because of our disabilities, we’d be lagging because society is failing us.

Society decides what and what isn’t a disability; people who are disabled have that label put upon them by society, which has decided that the person is not functioning in the ‘right’ way. So it’s hard to see why you can say an autistic person HAS a disability when it is not them that’s decided that it’s a disability. They have had that title given to them.

They have been disabled by society. And that’s why I think the social model of disability is more helpful.


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