Social Model

Ask yourself the question: What really disables people?

  • For a long time, people’s thinking about disability was dominated by a “Medical model”.  Individuals were regarded as disabled because of what was called their handicap or disability– what’s ‘wrong with them’.  People become ‘the handicapped’ or ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘differently-abled’ – all terms which underline that a person’s disability is a problem to be solved with medicines and aids.

More recently, Britain and most European countries have been following a “Social Model” of disability.  The social model points out that our whole society is constructed for people without physical, sensory, cognitive or learning impairments.   Disability is caused by unnecessary barriers which prevent a person with an impairment from living freely and independently.  A person with an impairment is disabled not by their impairment but by the barriers placed in their way.

The classic illustration of this 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.

Some people feel that using “old” language about disability can be as offensive as racist language.  To help in using the right language, download this Style Guide to the social model.