Models of Disability

There are several different models that can help us understand disability and its context in society. It is important for post-secondary staff to have an understanding of which models they are employing when speaking to and engaging with students and colleagues with disabilities. If one is employing the biomedical model for example, one should be aware of the critiques of that model and take some time to question one’s assumptions.

Medical model

Under the medical model, disability focuses on the rehabilitation of bodily and mental function. This model supposes that disability impacts an individual’s quality of life and that disabilities should be corrected with medical intervention. The model further supposes that by improving the functioning of disabled people with medical interventions, disabled people can access a “normal” life. For example, the phrase “he can’t read that book because he’s blind” highlights the use of the medical model. The medical model has been often criticised for placing emphasis on the impairment of disability rather than on the systems and structures that impact the lives of disabled people. Further, the medical model paints disabled bodies as pathological and defective, which can have an impact on the self-image of disabled people and how society views and treats people with disabilities.

Social model

In contrast, the social model of disability portrays disability as a function of the way society is organised rather than a person’s impairment or difference. This model looks to remove barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people in order to provide them with the ability to participate fully in “normal” life. According to this model, disability is something a person experiences, not something they have. The model also acknowledges that attitudes towards disabled people can be barriers within themselves, requiring education and proactive action. For example, the phrase “he can’t read that book because it’s not written in braille” highlights the use of the social model. Importantly, the social model does not deny that disabled people can seek medical intervention to minimise the impact of their impairment, though this has been a common critique of the model.

Human rights-based model

The human rights-based model of disability builds on the social model by recognizing that people with disabilities have rights and asserting that the state and others have a responsibility to respect those rights. The model comes from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This model says that the barriers in society are in fact discriminatory, and gives disabled people routes through which they can assert their rights and complain when they encounter those barriers. The human rights model also acknowledges that disability is a natural part of human diversity and a part of identity, and therefore, they are entitled to the same rights, opportunities, and privileges of persons without disabilities.

An important note on Indigenous Models of Disability:

Understandings of impairment from Indigenous worldviews are somewhat different from the disability models outlined here. These conceptions are usually grounded in respect for the fundamental interdependency of all beings in their diversity and difference. In fact, literature suggests that many Indigenous communities find the term “disability” to be alien and contradictory to their understanding of impairments. For some Indigenous people, the idea of “normalcy” in one’s health is related to the balance that person experiences in their spirituality, family, social connections and ancestral attachment to the land.

These are the models of disability you may find yourself and others using when interacting with disabled students and peers. Society as a whole is moving toward use of the social and human rights-based models, due in part to the fact that disabled activists have encouraged their use as they promote dignity and autonomy. However, it’s important to have an understanding of these models, so that we can recognize and invite ourselves and others to reflect and change their approach when the medical model is being used exclusively.

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