The social model of disability – what really disables people

BuDS uses the Social Model to explain our relationship to disability


Not sure what that is? Read on to find out…


Yesterday’s Thinking – The Medical Model

For a long time, people’s thinking around disability was dominated by medical opinions. Doctors took the view that individuals were born with, or developed, conditions which could be medically diagnosed. Those individuals were regarded as disabled because of what is then called their handicap or disability– what’s ‘wrong with them’.

Under the medical model, people become ‘the handicapped’ or ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘differently-abled’. These terms all underline that the person’s disability is something they have which is a problem for them – a problem to be solved with medicines and aids.

Today’s Thinking – The Social Model

For the last 20 years or so, Britain and most European countries have been following the social model of disability. The social model points out that our whole society is constructed for people without physical, sensory, cognitive or learning impairments. It is the barriers placed in the path of people with impairments that really disable them, not the impairment they have.

The classic example of the social model is a wheelchair-user at the foot of a flight of steps. The medical model said that the person is handicapped by their inability to walk up the steps. The social model says that the problem is the steps – the lack of a ramp is what disables the person, not the fact they are a wheelchair-user.

The three main social barriers which disable people with impairments are:

Physical barriers – such as steps, lack of signers, no audio loop or EasyRead documents
Organisational barriers – such as working methods which make it hard or impossible for disabled people to apply or join in
Attitudinal barriers – such as making assumptions about people and their abilities, aspirations and hopes.

BuDS’ aim, and the aim of all social model organisations, is to remove barriers so that people with impairments are not disabled.

New Thinking – New Language

Language is an important way of highlighting that you and your organisation have embraced the Social Model, and thus are an ally of disabled people, championing inclusive policies and ways of working being Fair4All.

Here at BuDS we’ve created an easy to follow guidance on how to use language in a way that shows you follow the Social Model, “Talking about Disability – A Style Guide Inspired by 2012”. Download a copy by clicking the link or call us on 01494 211179.