The Social Model of Disability

I had the great pleasure of attending this year’s Faculty of Education, Social Science and Law Postgraduate Conference recently at Leeds University. The programme was organised into 2 parallel streams and just by chance the first and last presentations I went to both made reference to the Social Model of Disability (SMD). The social model is explicitly contrasted with the dominant medical model of disability. The medical model focuses on individuals’ impairments (for instance deafness) as the cause of their disability. The ‘solution’ is therefore a combination of attempting to improve the ‘disabling’ condition as far as possible and if necessary limiting activities to those that can be carried out reasonably satisfactorily. In contrast, the social model, while acknowledging the fact of bodily impairment, locates the causes of disability within the physical and social environments in which the impaired person lives. The causes of disability are therefore located in the disabling environment rather than the impairments of the disabled person. This is a very important and increasingly influential perspective on disability. Many aspects of law and regulation concerning the treatment and accommodation of people with impairments, for instance with regard to employment and accessibility, are based on the social model of disability. Even more, variants of the social model of disability are now being applied to our understanding of a range of social issues such as educational disadvantage, social exclusion, and meeting a variety of welfare needs relating to different stages of the life cycle, for instance aging.

However, it is still the case that most people’s ideas about disability and the disabled have more in common with the medical model. Something like the medical model seems to underlie the prevailing common sense understanding of disability. The first of the two presentations I went to at the Postgraduate Conference reported on a study of the way ‘socioscientific’ issues are represented and discussed in the 14 to 16 GCSE science curriculum (The Representation of Socioscientific Issues in a School Science Curriculum paper by Helen Morris, School of Education). The science curriculum now includes practical examples of how science impacts on society. The analysis of the textbooks showed that discussions of disability were couched in terms of the medical model whether discussing treatment of impairment or the ethical issues. The social model did not get a look in. This is a pity. It is a wasted opportunity to get young people to think more broadly and critically about social issues and the relationship between scientific, technological and social approaches to understanding. The approach in the text books continues to foster the belief that all problems have, in principle, a solution available on the basis of science and technology.

The last presentation I went to demonstrated that the basic assumptions of the medical model of disability seem to be the common sense perspective of young children. (Understanding Children’s Attitudes Towards Disabled People: Making a Case for Interdisciplinary Research paper by Angharad Becket, School of Sociology and Social Policy, based on the findings of the Disability Equality in English Primary Schools (DEEPS) project). In this study non-disabled children aged 6/7 years and 10/11 years took part in focus groups to discuss disability and their knowledge/understanding of the lives of disabled people. Although some were concerned that disabled people are not always treated fairly (an encouraging response), common views expressed were that their lives were very sad and probably not worth living, that they would not be able to get a job, have girl or boy friends and raise families, and that the cause of all this was their physical impairments. The common image of the disabled person was someone in a wheelchair. It seems to me that if this is the general attitude towards the disabled at that age, the text books these children will go on to use in secondary education will offer nothing to challenge these views or encourage a more balanced approach to the disabling material and social environments that are such a large part of the production and experience of disability.

BBC Disability Confidence Course
BBC Disability Confidence Course

As an interesting example of how major institutions are basing their approach to disability on the social model, the BBC have produced a short on-line course on Working with disable people for their School of Journalism. The opening video is an excellent demonstration of what the social model of disability is all about. Other sections give examples of how the BBC enables staff with impairments to do their jobs. To start the opening video click on the Next button in the bottom right-hand corner of the welcome screen.

Among the many organisations and institutions using the social model of disability to inform their policies, the British Red Cross and Manchester City Council both have descriptions of the model on their websites. The School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds has the internationally acclaimed Centre for Disability Studies that hosts the UK Disabilty Archive. There are many articles and papers on disability issues freely available there including an early paper by Mike Oliver, one of the original proponents of the social model, The Individual and Social Models of Disability. Searching the Archive for ‘social model’ lists over 70 relevant articles.