The Social Model of Disability

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At Disability Arts Online, everything we do is informed by the Social Model of Disability, the defining principle, which historically brought disabled people together to form the Disability Movement through the 1980s and 90s. The Social Model holds that a person isn’t ‘disabled’ because of their impairment, health condition, or the ways in which they may differ from what is thought to be the medical ‘norm’; rather it is the physical and attitudinal barriers in society – prejudice, lack of access adjustments and systemic exclusion – that disable people.

In a nutshell the Social Model understands disability as the lived experience of barriers. Developed by disabled people to identify and take action against discrimination, the Social Model puts equality and human rights as a central focus on our understanding of disability. This contrasts with the Medical Model, which presents disability as an individual, medical ‘problem’, focusing on what a person can’t do because of their particular physical, sensory, or neurological characteristics. The Medical Model places care, cure and welfare as a central understanding of disability, instead of accessibility, independence and inclusion. The Medical Model places the responsibility and burden for being a disabled person on the individual.

The Social Model takes the focus away from impairment; it places responsibility on government, organisations, businesses and individuals across all sectors of society to identify and implement constructive changes to remove barriers and increase access. Under the Social Model, disability is framed as a social construct created by barriers which can be changed and eliminated, providing a dynamic and positive model which identifies the causes of exclusion and inequality and proposes a solution. It is on society to make changes, not on the disabled person; for individuals and organisations to understand and then make the adjustments required to stop marginalising and excluding people whose bodies and minds don’t comply with society’s idea of what is normative and acceptable.

A woman with no visible impairment - we are perhaps to assume she does not have any disability - is frowning and waving a hand at a sign which reads 'Normality training: How to stop upsetting people by looking disabled.' A woman carrying a crutch and a man wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane respond to the frowning woman by saying: 'Be normal - but what makes you think we'd want to lower our standards.'

Normality Training cartoon (c) Crippen

The Social Model makes a clear distinction between impairment (a condition, illness or loss/lack of function) and disability (barriers and discrimination). It also demonstrates that people from different impairment groups, far from having separate issues and interests, face common problems – such as lack of access to information and communication, environmental exclusion and discrimination in employment – and empowers them, along with their allies, to find common solutions to remove these barriers. It moves away from a position of ‘blaming’ the individual for their ‘shortcomings’, argues that impairment is and always will be present in society, and suggests that the only logical outcome is to plan and organise society in a way that includes, rather than excludes, disabled people.

In a recent development disabled journalist Dave Lupton aka cartoonist Crippen has been interviewing disabled artists about their introduction to the Social Model understanding of Disability. As well as describing how it has influenced their lives and artistic practices, the articles provide an insight into how disabled people continue to use this understanding to confront discrimination.