What is the Social Model of Disability?

Winter Gate
A wooden gate is chained shut, closing off an unpaved drive. The drive is covered in snow and there are woodland trees on either side.

The social model of disability is a framework of ideas that has been proposed as a way of understanding disability, and the relationships between Disabled people and the broader society. It developed in response to what Disabled advocates believe to be the shortcomings of the older, medical model of disability. 

The medical model of disability treats disability as an individual tragedy. It presents the limitations that Disabled individuals experience being the direct result of the medical aspects of their disability. In this model the limitations that come with disability are unfortunate, but inevitable. Disabled people are seen as not being able to participate fully in society as a natural extension of their disability.

The social model of disability strives to challenge the assumptions that are made in the medical model. The social model questions the presumption that the exclusion of Disabled people is inevitable. Instead it highlights ways in which different people’s needs accommodated, or not accommodated by society. 

Some needs are accommodated as a matter of course in mainstream Canadian society. For instance, things like grocery stores and restaurants are in place so that people who can’t grow their own food, or don’t have time to cook can obtain food that has been grown and prepared by someone else. There are social and economic structures, and supply systems, in place that support restaurants and grocery stores. Not having the knowledge or ability to grow all of your own food is not disabling in this society. In fact, relying on grocery stores is a normal part of every day life for the majority of people. 

Other needs are not accommodated well. For example, In a society where driving is often needed to get around, people with conditions that prevent driving are at a disadvantage. They are limited in their ability to access the community, and even employment by what alternative options are available to them. In communities that do not have accessible and reliable public transit they might be very limited in their ability to move around. Even where public transit exists they are limited by what hours and routes that the transit system operates within. 

This means that two people with the same medical limitations on driving might have very different experiences in their ability to access community depending on how accessible transit is in their communities. A person in a rural community with no public transit access might be virtually housebound, while a person in a community where there is good public transit, or where most of their needs are within easy walking distance, might experience very little limitation from the same disability. 

The social model acknowledges that disability is not a static (unchanging) state of being but a dynamic, and active social process. A person is *made* Disabled when the society they live in is structured in a way which does not accommodate their needs.

Using the social model doesn’t ignore that Disabled people have particular limitations, but it does shift the focus away from thinking about what people can’t do. Instead the social model encourages us to think about what environmental and social changes can be made to allow people to work within their limitations and still participate fully in society. 

Something is missed when researchers and professionals reduce disability from a complex relationship between people with particular limitations and the societies that they find themselves in, down to a set of medical  deficiencies. The social model challenges the assumption that disability is something that is “wrong” with individual people and instead asks what can be improved in our society to accommodate a wider range of human diversity.  

This more positive model of disability is gaining broader acceptance. In fact, it has been acknowledged in legal contexts including the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and in Supreme Court of Canada decisions.

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