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The “Models” of Disability

Empty wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of stairsTraditionally there were two ways of looking at disability – the “charity” model and the “medical” model.

The charity model tended to look at disabled people as those in need of help. Unable to do things for ourselves, others would need to look after us, protect us and make decisions on our behalf. As much of this “care” isn’t state-funded, charities needed to raise money, and traditionally this was done by emphasising the helplessness of disabled people. Whilst charities offer vital services, the danger is that this takes any autonomy, independence and even rights away from the disabled individual.

The medical model focuses on the impairment – on what is “wrong” with the person. It looks at the ways in which the person deviates from the norm, and tries to narrow that gap. The assumption here is that “normal” is automatically desirable and to be aspired to. The “problem” lies with the individual and what they can or can’t do.

Then along came the social model. Brought about by disability activists, this model suggests that the person is disabled by society’s inabilities to adapt to their needs. So, for example, the wheelchair isn’t the problem, the stairs are. In the 1970s, a group called the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) campaigned for the rights of people with impairments to participate fully in society, to live indeopendently, to undertake productive work and to have full control over their lives. They stated:

“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.”

The social model removes the focus and “blame” from the disabled person to society in general. Since then, the social model has encompassed not just people with physical impairments, but also people with sensory impairments, learning disabilities and mental health issues. The barriers that society puts in our way include physical (the built environemnt) and attitudinal barriers.

There are critics of the social model (e.g. Tom Shakespeare, 2006), and of course nothing is black and white. Until we as a society provide for the needs of disabled people we will rely on charities (e.g. Whizz-Kidz, who provide electric wheelchairs to enable children and young people with mobility problems to lead more independent lives) to some extent. As a disabled person I sincerely hope we don’t abandon the medical model completely – finding ways to reduce or manage pain more effectively would improve the lives of many people. But we can leave that in the hands of the scientists.

For the rest of us, I believe we have a duty to identify and remove the barriers (physical or attitudinal) which prevent disabled people from fully participating in life. Suitable, appropriate and accessible housing, health care, education, access to buildings and information and inclusive employment practices won’t “cure” the impairments, but will mean society can access and benefit from all that disabled people have to offer.

In particular, employers should be looking to identify any physical or attitudinal barriers that prevent disabled people from working there, and then addressing those barriers.

If this blog was offered to you only in braille, the only people disabled from reading it would be those who don’t read braille.

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