Understanding Disability

Barriers aren’t just physical, like stairs. They can be people’s attitudes, the way things are organised, discrimination or a lack of access to services.

Disability is part of the human condition.

Almost all of us will experience an impairment at some point in life, whether it is temporary or permanent, and when we reach old age we experience increasing difficulties in functioning.

Medical Model

The woman in the wheelchair is the problem

The traditional, medical model of understanding is that the person is disabled by their medical condition. Seeing the world through the medical model, the woman in the picture can’t get up the stairs because she’s in a wheelchair. The disabled person is seen as the problem.

In the medical model you are defined by what is ‘wrong’ with you. You will be seen by others and may even see yourself as:

  • Not a ‘normal’ person
  • A medical problem
  • Dependent on others
  • Unable to make decisions
  • Less equal

In a medical-model world you are disabled by your impairment.

  • Jane can’t read her appointment note from the hospital because she’s blind
  • Tom can’t teach at school because he’s profoundly deaf
  • John and his friends aren’t welcome in the pub because they have learning difficulties and will upset the other customers
  • Julie can’t go to work at the supermarket because she has panic attacks

Social Model

The stairs are the problem

The social model of understanding accepts impairment as a normal part of being human. What disables people are the social attitudes and physical barriers, not the impairment itself. Seeing the world through the social model, the woman in the picture can’t get to the upper floor because of the stairs. The stairs are the problem.

In a social-model world you are defined as a person with equal rights. You should be seen by others and see yourself as:

  • An equal citizen
  • Someone who, like everyone else, needs medical care
  • Independent
  • Able to make decisions

In a social-model world you are disabled by being socially excluded.

  • Jane can’t read her appointment note from the hospital because it’s not provided in Braille.
  • Tom can’t teach because a sign language interpreter hasn’t been provided.
  • John and his friends can’t go to the pub because of the landlord’s discriminatory attitude.
  • Julie can’t go to work at the supermarket because there is not a flexible, non-judgemental management approach.

Barriers aren’t just physical, like stairs. They can be people’s attitudes, the way things are organised, discrimination or a lack of access to services.

Used by kind permission of Equal Lives “Understanding Disability” leaflet, © Equal Lives 2016

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