The social model of disability is one of a number of models of disability. The term ‘social model of disability’ was originally devised by Michael Oliver (1983). It has become perhaps the most prominent model over the last thirty to forty years. Oliver (1983: 23) originally described this model as a “new paradigm” for thinking about disability. It was to be a fundamental:
…switch away from focusing on the physical limitations of particular individuals to the way the physical and social environments impose limitations upon certain groups or categories of people.
This crystallised the idea that it was society that should adjust to the needs of the disabled as opposed to the disabled being unable to adjust to a non-disabled society. Although Oliver outlined this model, its origins lie further back with the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS).
Two Key Terms
Two important key terms are inherent to the social model of disability. Rather than the individual being ‘disabled’, they were to be reframed as having an ‘impairment’. The disabling of the individual was then something that was enacted on those with impairments by society. To clarify, we can see consider the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (1976: 14) definitions of the two terms:
Thus we define impairment as lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body; and disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities. Physical disability is therefore a particular form of social oppression.
So, to clarify, the ‘impairment’ was the individual’s condition but it was society that ‘disabled’ the individual. To give an example, a wheelchair user has some kind of impairment. However, an individual wheelchair user may be able to do shopping quite easily by themselves. If there is no wheelchair access to the store, then it is society that has disabled the individual by preventing them from accessing the store rather than the impairment itself. If a ramp was in place to allow access to the store, then it shows how society can adapt to the needs of the wheelchair user.
Although it is possible to make the claim that it was still the impairment that prevented access to the store, the fact is that, in a humane society, there will always be people with impairments regardless of how these impairments came to be. Thus, it makes sense then that society should and must adapt to facilitate greater access to society for those with impairments.
Continuing with this idea, Lang (2001: 4) highlights within the social model of disability the idea that, regardless of what kind of society a person with an impairment lives in, they are subjected to negative and oppressive attitudes. This, in turn, undermines personhood and the individual’s status as a citizen. Worse, this can then be internalised with the individual coming to view themselves as a less valuable member of society. Again, this reaffirms that it is society disabling the individual.
As capitalism places a high value on efficiency, productivity, performance, competition, and profit, it creates an oppressive set of issues for those with impairments. A person with impairments is, in all likelihood, going to be disadvantaged in most of these areas. This is certainly not to say that they are not capable, but that to maintain an equal footing is unlikely in many situations in relation to these tenets. Thus, those without impairments are held in higher regard due to their greater ability to adhere to these tenets of capitalism whilst those with impairments are seen as being of lesser value to the system. There is no natural imperative for society to act in this way therefore society has come to disable the individual through unnecessary intensity and pressure of performance and productivity related ideals. Further, this ultimately translates into poor job prospects and today those with impairments are still much more likely to be unemployed.
Other Disabling Factors
Other ways in which the individual can be disabled by society include through media portrayals of impairments whereby they are represented through various evil characters such as Freddy Krueger or Captain Hook. Discourse also plays a role with various slurs or insults thrown around which frame those with impairments as lesser people, less than human, or in some other way worth less than the ‘normal’ person. So called ‘special schools’ can implement a segregatory element where those with impairments are hidden away. Historically, asylums or sanitoriums are also examples of this. Prejudice, stereotypes, poor transport systems, poorly designed buildings, poverty, isolation, or even excess noise can be also be seen as disabling factors originating from society.
Rejection of Other Models
Another of the social model’s central ideas is the rejection of other existing models of disability, primarily the medical model of disability or what Oliver called the ‘individual pathology model’. These models view disabled people as being purely a medical phenomenon with explanations and solutions to disability being filtered through medical expertise. This medical model of course ignores any societal barriers created by society itself. The social model does not reject the idea of medical interventions but it advocates that, rather than simply diagnose and treat impairments, those with the impairments should be able to choose the right care to help them overcome barriers created by the society in which they live.
The social model of disability has been quite heavily criticised in terms of sociological analyses, perhaps due to its popularity. Tom Shakespeare (2013), a prominent writer on disability, highlights a number of weaknesses with the social model of disability. Charges of being peppered with dichotomies is one such criticism. A dichotomy just means two opposing things, usually in a context where other possibilities are ignored in favour of focusing on these two opposing things. In this case, impairment is seen as individual and private whilst disability is seen as public and structurally located; the social model is seen as progressive whilst the medical model is seen as reactionary; and disabled people are set apart from non-disabled people.
Shakespeare also draws together other criticisms and weaknesses. A tendency to overlook the importance of impairment in the lives of disabled people for example. By overlooking this particular element, there is a risk that the impairment itself becomes absent from the equation and only the social barriers are included in formulating any difficulties people with impairments may face. Additionally, a lack of diversity that went into formulating the ideas within this model, as well as seeing disability itself as being a form of oppression, also form a basis for critique. The latter of these finds that disabled people are placed in a position where they cannot be anything other than oppressed.
Owens (2014: 388) argues that the social model of disability is, in fact, not a model at all on the grounds that it only contains two components: disability and oppression which present an overly simplified interpretation of the world. This again reflects Shakespeare’s observation around dichotomies. Further, Owens suggests that criticisms can be organised into three general categories surrounding embodiment, oppression, and an inadequate theoretical basis. Owens’ paper as a whole is highly recommended for a good summary of critiques of the social model of disability.
Barnes, C. (1999). Disability Studies: new or not so new directions?. Disability & Society, 14(4), 577-580.
Lang, R. (2001). The development and critique of the social model of disability. Overseas Development Group: University of East Anglia.
Oliver, M. (1983). Social Work with Disabled People. London Macmillan Education Uk.
Owens, J. (2014). Exploring the Critiques of the Social Model of disability: the Transformative Possibility of Arendt’s Notion of Power. Sociology of Health & Illness, 37(3), pp.385–403.
Shakespeare, T. (2013). The Social Model of Disability. In: Disability studies reader. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.
UPIAS (1976) Fundamental Principles of Disability, London, Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation.
Oliver, M. (1983). Social Work with Disabled People. London Macmillan Education Uk.
Barnes, C. and Mercer, G. (2010). Exploring Disability. Oxford: Polity Press.
Oliver, M. and Barnes, C. (2012). The new politics of disablement. Houndmills, Uk: Palgrave Macmillan.