The Medical and Social Models of Disability

When discussing disability there are normally two models which are mentioned, the medical and social models of disability.

The medical model focuses on there being something wrong with an individual in that it is their person in which the issue of disability resides. The social model focuses on it being environments and society that disable the user by not being correctly delivered in a way that allows a disabled user to successfully interact. Both models have a role to play in fully addressing actions to deliver a world in which disabled people can live a full and active life.

Disability is complicated, it encompasses impairments, environmental barriers and attitudes. The medical model is correct in some senses and when in the context of physical and mental health, and treatments to improve quality of life; the acceptance that there is something “wrong” with a person with a disability is an important one. Adjustments to the individual such as medicines, surgery or tools to enable physical mobility (ie. wheelchairs) that can drastically improve quality of life, ability or longevity are a good thing, and denying this model in favour of Social only speaks to a mindset that would prefer a world where medical treatment is not given because it is “all society’s doing” that the person is disabled and there is nothing wrong with the individual.

In other senses the social model is absolutely correct and action absolutely needs to be taken to improve environments and attitudes to deliver equivalent experiences for all. This is some of the core basis to accessibility and inclusion work, but without the medical model is only half of the understanding too. Nearly all of the work that we can do as accessibility professionals is focussed on social adjustments to better enable disabled users. The medical model can only do a small portion of the work, but whether it be a physical or digital experience, there is much work that we can do to make it accessible to everyone.

The mixing of the two models is to deliver not only equality but a life with maximised positivity, one needs to be honest with all of the causes of disablement and embrace all of the effective actions that can be taken to reduce disability, whether that medical treatment, environment adaptations, supportive technology or attitude changes.

This is an ongoing and evolving discussion with many different viewpoints on how the models should be interpreted or the weight each one should be given.
A good starting place for learning about the models is from Professor Mike Oliver and his interview Kicking Down the Doors: from Borstal Boy to University Professor.