Models of Disability

Disability is seen everywhere in society. But, how do we describe it? What do we say about it to not cause offense to anyone? Is there a 'right way' to talk about disability? 


The answers are quite ambiguous. 


Firstly, I would like to define what the term disability means in the United Kingdom (UK) today. According to the Equality Act 2010, you have a disability 'if 1) you have a physical or mental impairment and 2) the impairment has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities' (GOV.UK, 2010).


Within the UK around 22% of the population has a disability. Some common categories of disability include; physical, sensory, intellectual and mental health.  Each person’s disability is unique to them and no two people are affected the same way, even with the same classification of disability. Disability can be congenital or may be acquired throughout a person’s lifetime.  


Today there is still a 'society-wide fear of disability itself' (Drake Music, 2017a) and this fear means that the topic of disability is still a taboo subject, and people; both disabled and non-disabled, feel awkward talking about it. This needs to change, but how can it when, as Drake Music states, 'a lot of the social exclusion and inequalities that disabled people face are generated from non-disabled people not understanding our experiences and being scared to talk about it with us' (2017a). First off, there needs to be greater opportunity for dialogue as 'creating more conversation about and between disabled people can only lead to a better experience for disabled people' (Drake Music, 2017a).


But how can the conversation start when society is not sure how best to describe disability, even 'disabled people use differing vocabularies to refer to themselves' (Drake Music, 2017a). Also, confusion can manifest as a wide strand of society believes that there is just one clear answer on how to behave and talk about disability. 


There are however, several models used to describe disability, most notably within society today are the social model and medical model. Although these two are the most common today, they have developed from previous models and are always evolving as society grows and changes. Below I will describe some of the earlier models that have been used to describe how disability has been, and is viewed today, in the hope of understanding more about how it can be perceived today. This includes the traditional/

moral/religious model and the charity model of disability. 





















The Traditional/Moral/Religious Model of Disability:


The first model is the traditional/moral/religious model, this model focuses on societies’ views throughout history and how historical times influenced peoples' views, as well as peoples’ religious beliefs.


Attitudes towards people with various disabilities has changed over time, and is still changing today, especially in the Western World. An example of this is from Attitudes2Disability, which states:


'People with physical, sensory or mental impairments were thought of as under the spell of witchcraft, possessed by demons, or as pertinent sinners, being punished by God for wrong-doing by themselves or their parents'  (n.d.).


In the 1980’s, in the Western World this view changed  when the Medical Model of disability began to emerge (discussed more below). However, the religious model is still portrayed in some African countries for example; disabled people are seen in a negative light and this impacts on them and their families lives. Some of the reasons behind this view include: sin or a curse or demonic possession, breaking laws and family sins, adultery among others (United Nations, 2016).


Religious beliefs have portrayed disabled people in both a positive, and negative view; according to one of the first forms of moral and/or religious models of disability, disability has been regarded as a punishment from God for sins that was committed by the disabled person (Retief and Letšosa, 2018).


This punishment is not only inflicted on them but also onto the families. This elaboration of the negative impact can cause 'potentially destructive consequences of such a view, in the sense that it may lead to entire families being excluded from social participation in their local communities' (Retief and Letšosa, 2018, p.2) and can leave families isolated for reasons that are no fault of their own.


Although the traditional/moral/religious model is not as prevalent in many cultures today as it was, 'there are certain cultures where the moral and/or religious model of disability is still the predominant view' (Retief and Letšosa, 2018, p.2). This has led onto the ideology that disabled people are seen as a lower standard of human being and become marginalized within their society. 


Therefore, although this model is still around and used in some cultures today, it is not used to describe or explain how we treat disabled people in todays’ society in the UK. However, without this model and the influence of historical beliefs, we would not have made the changes we have today. As the times change, the model of disability has to change too. 

The Charity Model of Disability – 


Another model that greatly influences how disability is seen today is the charity model of disability. 


In essence, the charity model portrays disabled people as being ‘in need’ and ‘creates a view of disabled people’s lives as tragic and pitiable’ (Drake Music, 2017b). This model relies on able-bodied people helping those less able and assisting them through whichever means possible, this has produced ‘results such as money donated for services needed by persons with disabilities as well as verbal support for the needs of persons with disabilities (Henderson and Bryan, 2011, p. 8). This contribution has then led onto ‘feelings of sympathy and devaluation of the lives of those persons targeted for help’ (Henderson and Bryan, 2011, p.8) within society. Today, society can be seen as portraying disabled people as inspirational and this stems from the charity model. Although this model does not specifically focus on the development of charities in itself, it contributes to how they portray disability within their online media and advertisement. Many charities focus on the disabilities; the struggles disabled people face, and how able-bodied people can contribute and make a change for disabled people.


The majority of the disability community therefore portray the charity model in quite a negative light, as it ‘is often seen as depicting [people with disabilities] as helpless, depressed and dependent on other people for care and protection (Retief and Letšosa, 2018, p.6) which leads to misconceptions of disabled people.


Although this model depicts disabled people as less able and needing help to fulfil their lives, ‘persons with disabilities are capable individuals who can support themselves if given reasonable opportunities to do so’ (Henderson and Bryan, 2011, p.8). Within society today the charity model is becoming less visible, and more focus is on peoples abilities and fulfilling their lives as equally as those without disabilities or challenges.  


​The Social Model of Disability


The social model developed from a political movement in the United Kingdom in the seventies and eighties by disabled people. They were in contest with the acclaimed medical model of disability that was in use, and defined people with disabilities in ways which they did not agree with. Therefore they came up with the social model. 


The social model describes disability as being something society imposes upon disabled people. Disabled people are not disabled by their impairments, but by society. The social model defines impairment and disability as different entities;


Disability – ‘is the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by the political, economic and cultural norms of a society which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream activity’ (Oliver et al., 2012).


Impairment – ‘is a characteristic of the mind, body or senses within an individual which is long term and may, or may not, be the result of disease, genetics or injury’ (Oliver et al., 2012, p.16). 


Therefore, the ‘effect of society not taking account of people with impairments is the creation of disabling barriers; these can be attitudinal, systemic, cultural or physical’ (Oliver et al., 2012, p.16) and this defining difference ‘shifts the onus of response away from the individual (to be cured) to society (to dismantle barriers that construct disability)' (Jackson, 2018, p.5) therefore reducing the negative impact society can have on disabled people, through changing society itself rather than the person.


There are many strengths to the social model of disability, most notably that ‘the social model demonstrates that the problems disabled people face are the results of social oppression and exclusion, not their individual deficits’ (Shakespeare, 2013, p.217).  Implementing the social model within society has allowed the liberation of disabled people and built the political view of allowing them to relocate the problem of disability ‘from the individual to the barriers and attitudes’ (Shakespeare, 2013, p.217) around them. This is said to have psychologically improved ‘the self-esteem of disabled people and built a positive sense of collective identity’ (Shakespeare, 2013, p.217) leading to a more fulfilled life. 


Although the social model has taken the onus of disability away from the disabled person, there is also some criticism of the model because it highlights ‘the neglect of impairment as an important aspect of many disabled peoples lives’ (Shakespeare, 2013, p.217). 


In essence the ‘social model of disability is not about disabled people themselves, nor their experiences of impairment or use of agency; it is about societal systems, structures and practices that do not take account of people with impairments’ (Oliver et al., 2012, p.18). This poses the problem that the model implies that impairment is not a problem, however, as Crow (1992) states;

‘as individuals, most of us simply cannot pretend with any conviction that our impairments are irrelevant because they influence every aspect of our lives. We must find a way to integrate them into our whole experience and identity for the sake of our own physical and emotional well-being, and, subsequently, for our capacity to work against Disability’ (Crow, 1992, p.7).


The idea that society is the only element that disables disabled people, takes away the notion that disabled peoples bodies have difficulties; as Kafer (2013) states it ‘erases the lived realities of impairment… and it overlooks the often-disabling effects of our bodies.’ (p.7). People with chronic illnesses, progressive disabilities, and fatigue have been the most critical of the model stating that social and structural changes will not have an effect on aching joints or back pain. Changes in architecture or attitudes will not heal other illnesses such as cancer or diabetes (Kafer, 2013). 


This perception of essentially ignoring the impairments and challenges a disabled person may face everyday results in marginalising an already marginalised group even further, especially ‘disabled people who are interested in medical interventions or cures’(Kafer, 2013, p.7). 


Although as Shakespeare (2013) describes, the moral responsibility is on society to remove the burdens which have been imposed, and enable disabled people to participate in society, the impact of their impairments is essentially ignored resulting in it not being seen as a problem. This can result in disabled people not having a voice around what their disability involves and how it impacts on their lives every day. 


This model should include the ability to incorporate the physical challenges a person faces everyday alongside removing the barriers society displays. This brings me onto the last model I will describe which is the Medical Model of Disability. 


The Medical Model of Disability 

The medical model of disability has been briefly mentioned in comparison to the various models described above. The medical model began to develop in the mid 1800’s, and essentially focuses on what is ‘wrong’ with a person and how they can be ‘fixed’ through medical intervention, as Olkin (2001) states; ‘disability is seen as a medical problem that resides in the individual’ (p. 26).

Similar to the charity model, disability is seen in a pitiable way and the person needs help, and in this model, needs ‘fixing’. 


The medical model declares that disabled people are not ‘comparable with their able-bodied counterparts’ (Retief and Letšosa, 2018, p.4)and in some cases; ‘disability, disease and illness are seen as embarrassing personal problems, conditions to be cured, tolerated or accommodated’ (Hadley, 2014, p.5). The authority over disability is primarily placed in the hands of the medical professionals who have the job of making the disabled person better and provide treatment for them which they cannot get on their own. With this model in mind; ‘persons with disabilities are expected to avail themselves of the variety of services offered to them and to spend time in the role of patient or learner being helped by trained professionals’ (Olkin, 2001, p.26). The medical model relies on getting a diagnosis from medical professionals, and a person is seen for their label rather than themselves as a person. However, getting this ‘label’ enables them to gain some benefits and entitlements from the government, and while without a diagnosis or label, they are unlikely to gain any benefits. Although the medical model aims to diagnose, and treat the disability, having a diagnosis also allows for more help to be initiated by professionals with the aim of making a disabled persons life better and fulfilling a much healthier lifestyle.


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