The Social Model: understanding the language of disability from a cartoonists point of view


Dave Lupton, aka Crippen disabled cartoonist, has been engaged in the disability arts movement for more decades than he cares to mention. Following on from the publication of a showcase of Crippen’s cartoons last month we introduce his take on the language associated with disability from a Social Model perspective, in the run up to announcing a DAO project offering mentoring for up to 4 disabled cartoonists.

For a long time, the language around disability has been, and continues to be, an important issue for many Disabled people in the UK. For example, most Disabled people identify as being a ‘disabled person’ because they are ‘disabled’ by the ‘barriers’ in society rather than by their impairments.

disability language cartoon

Disabled cartoon

The collective term ‘the disabled’ is still used a great deal instead of ‘disabled people’. Unfortunately ‘the disabled’ re-enforces the idea that disabled people are a homogeneous group. In effect, we are seen as a separate group within society – and as all being the same. This has the ‘useful’ function of making any dealings with us much easier, as people don’t then have to worry about treating us as individuals and can make broad, sweeping generalisations about our way of life!

Other terms, such as ‘non-disabled’ is used rather than ‘able-bodied’ for those people who do not identify as being disabled. This is based upon the fact that not all impairments are physical, or visible.

The term ‘handicapped’ is widely disliked because of the image it conjures up of people going ‘cap-in-hand’ and begging for charity. Likewise, the term ‘invalid’ is derogatory as it implies we are in-valid and therefore not worthy of participation within society.

People who are seen as learning disabled have had a hard fight changing the language that people have used to describe them. Terms like ‘simple minded’ or the more hurtful ‘Mongol’ (for people with Down’s Syndrome) and ‘Spastic’ (for people with Cerebral Palsy) have taken a long time to disappear from our language, if indeed they truly have.

Another aspect that reinforces the negative language and stereotyping of disabled people is the use of labels to pigeon-hole us. Many of us wear invisible labels without realising that these perceptions of who we are, are being projected onto us. Many non-disabled people see the negative connotations of such labels whenever they see a disabled person.

Labels cartoon

Shedding the labels

These labels can be uniquely specific and can reinforce the belief that disabled people are ‘different’ to the acceptable norm within each context. For example, charitable labels portray the wearer as being ‘needy’, ‘pitiable’, etc. Other labels describe us as ‘non-sexual’ beings, supporting the belief that disabled people are ‘undesirable’ and ‘unappealing’. In addition, labels can portray the wearer as being a ‘burden’, ‘tragic’ or ‘brave’.

The term ‘special’ is also associated with disabled people, especially those of us who are deemed to have ‘special needs’. This again separates disabled people from the mainstream, insomuch that any adjustment needed to remove a barrier or to make a service more accessible often has the term ‘special’ attached to it. One example in current use is the term ‘Special Olympics’ which effectively renders the athletes second best before they even start!

The Social Model understanding
When the term ‘Social Model understanding of disability’ was first coined by disabled academic Mike Oliver in 1983, it proved to be an epiphany for many disabled people. Suddenly there was a way to look at disability without restricting it to our impairments and viewing us as ‘the problem’. Suddenly disabled people were not to blame!


The Social Model understanding is based on the concept that it is the barriers within society that ‘disable’ us. These barriers are identified as being the physical environment, people’s attitudes, the way people communicate, how institutions and organisations are run, and how society discriminates against those of us who are perceived as ‘different’.

By taking this approach it means that everyone can participate in identifying and then dismantling these barriers to make society more accessible to everyone. This is much more constructive than just ‘blaming’ the disabled person for being unable to participate fully in society due to their impairments. It’s the difference between, for example, saying “She can’t climb stairs because she uses a wheelchair” and “This building is inaccessible to her because it has stairs”.

barrier cartoon

Attitude and lack of access, the road to discrimination

Unfortunately, the term ‘Social Model’ is often used without any clear understanding of what it really means. It is often used without any meaningful context. The Government has also manipulated the social model understanding to validate their welfare reforms programme. Often using the term ‘the disabled’ within an ersatz inclusive phrase, they cherry pick social model phrases and scatter them within reports that justify hard-hitting assessment processes and changes to benefits.

The Social Model understanding has come a long way since those early days and now has new and different understandings and applications that fit more with our changing society. However, the basic Social Model understanding still provides a solid foundation on which to build.

The Medical Model understanding
The ‘Medical Model’ understanding of disability identifies/ labels people by their impairments and suggests they need ‘special’ care and treatments because of this. Using this approach, disabled people’s lives are run and controlled by the (medical) professionals who claim to know what is best for them. Emphasis is on being cured and striving to appear ‘normal’ with the aid of medication and/or prosthetics or ‘special’ (rather than mainstream) services.

Many older disabled people were kept in institutions during their early childhood. These were mainly run on medical lines with staff wearing uniforms and male and females eating and sleeping in separate dormitories. Children with MS – for example – were labelled as being ‘spastic’ and segregated alongside children with learning difficulties.

We now know that abuse took place in these ‘homes’, both sexual/physical and psychological, with ‘patients’ having no recourse to any form of protection. Food was institutionalised, and clothing and haircuts were provided to a formula that identified them as living in a ‘special’ institution.

Another issue that many disabled people are fighting against is the belief by many within the medical profession that the Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) protocol relates to all those with a long-term illness or impairment. Therefore, whenever a disabled person is admitted to hospital, often the DNR suffix is affixed to their notes as a matter of course. It is usually by accident that the disabled patient becomes aware of this, and then must argue their case and have it removed, often when they are at their lowest ebb.

Again, this supports the belief that a person living with a long-term illness or impairment is looking for a way out and that life is not worth living.

The Charitable Model understanding
Disabled people have also identified the ‘Charity Model’ of disability – taking this approach, disabled people are portrayed as weak, vulnerable and needy, relying upon charity ‘handouts’.

charity cartoon

Captain Pratt epitomises those who seek to represent disabled people by rolling around in a bath of cold custard!

Many of the larger disability charities continue to perpetuate this negative image of Disabled people to the general public to encourage them to continue making donations.

Much of the charity ‘industry’ is run by non-disabled people, with many charities using a substantial portion of their income to maintain the charity itself rather than support or empower the disabled people they claim to represent.

A lot of campaigning has been undertaken by disabled people over several decades to highlight and challenge the fact that the management committees and staff teams of many of the big charities did not include the disabled people they represent. “Nothing about us without us” and “Rights not charity” have been rallying cries for the disabled people’s movement in the past.

Many disabled people believe that the struggle for civil, human and legal rights and full inclusion in society should be the focus for organisations and charities, not making ‘special’ or segregated provision or treating disabled people as in need of sympathy or care. If the public feels sorry for us, disabled people would argue, we can never be equal citizens.