What is the Social Model of Disability?

Unlike its sibling, the medical model of disability, the social model offers a framework from which we, as a collective community, must look at disability.

Image courtesy of the Health & Community Services Union.

To those unfamiliar with the way that the Disabilities Collective understands disability, the social model of disability provides a good starting point. 

The United Nations’ Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD) explains that “disability results from the interactions between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”. 

The social model of disability stands in contrast to other models of disability such as the medical model which views disability as a medical problem that needs to be ‘cured’, the charity model that views disabled people as helpless objects deserving of pity or the eugenics model of disability that views disability as a problem that needs to be eradicated. Such models still dominate most institutions’ approaches to disability. 

The social model of disability shifts the focus away from the disabled individual as the ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’, and towards the barriers that society puts in front of disabled people. Some examples of this for disabled university students and staff  include a lack of accessible access to buildings, lack of captioning and audio description during lecturers and tutorials and a lack of flexible work or study arrangements. It can also include other barriers such as social perceptions and ostracisation, with people often perceiving those who are neurodivergent or with mental health conditions as ‘strange’ or ‘anti-social’, or the prevalent perception that providing accommodations are inconvenient or unnecessary and disabled people should simply ‘try harder’. 

People With Disability Australia’s (PWDA) explains that the social model does not mean that disabled people do not face impairments, its primary function is to provide the lens through which we understand disability and by extension, the experience of disabled people. 

In Professor Mark Pimm’s (Birkbeck University) words, disabilities are the result of “the choices society makes”. This includes government policies that hinder and impede on people with disability such as cuts by stealth to the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) and dysfunctional healthcare systems. 

In a 2017 lecture, Mike Oliver, one of the pioneering disabled scholars behind the origination of the social model, delivered a stern rebuke to what he viewed as a corporatism in disability advocacy:

“The big disability charities with their plush London offices, highly paid executives and glossy publications have proved predictably useless at defending the living standards and lifestyles of disabled people from these vicious attacks while continuing to do very well for themselves,” Oliver said. 

“These charities need us to be dependent and tragic otherwise there is no justification for their existence.”

In many ways, Oliver’s scathing observations ring true in Australia as much as it does in Britain, with the increasing corporatisation of activism and the hollowing out of progressivism under the whims of business agendas. 

We recommend that all those interested in the social model of disability read, carefully, Oliver’s observations. It is a clarion call for critical examination of our politics and consideration of the collective. The social model, properly understood, demands that we assess the harm to the collective of our society rather than atomising our own existence.

To quote Oliver’s words: “We all have personal troubles, but we must see that they are public issues that we must confront by attacking the disabling barriers we face if we are to make our own way in this wicked world. What disability history teaches us is that we cannot rely on the bleeding hearts brigade and parasite people to do it for us.”