Our social model of disability

Our social model of disability is a different way of thinking about disability. It has been developed over years by academics and campaigners.

It is said that a major factor in overcoming the barriers faced by disabled people has to do with changing people’s attitudes and their perspectives of disability. The aim is to help people to see the person first, not the disability. 

Why is the social model of disabilty needed?

The standard way of thinking about disability in the past was the so-called medical model. The medical model, naturally enough, concentrates on disease and impairments. It puts what is wrong with someone in the foreground. This is surely important for doctors when it comes to diagnosis and treatment but it is not very relevant to the way that a disabled person lives their day-to-day life.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the medical model is that bringing the impairment into the foreground risks pushing the person into the background. They become less of a person, and more a collection of symptoms. What is more, it doesn't have very much to say about people's lives and how they live them.

How is the social model of disability different?

A key concept of the social model is that society disables people. Instead of emphasising the disability, the social model puts the person at the forefront. It emphasises dignity, independence, choice and privacy.

Definitions in the social model

Impairment. Having an impairment means something is not working properly - the body, mind or senses. Someone who has had an arm amputated has an impairment. So does someone whose learning disability makes it difficult for them to read. So does someone who is partially blind, or deaf, or who has muscle disease...

Disability occurs when a person is excluded, because of their impairment, from something that other people in society take for granted. That could be exclusion from a building, a service or being a part of an activity.

The social model says that disability is a social construct. How we organise things in our culture limits and restricts what some of its members can do. It is the choices society makes that causes someone to be disabled and if we organise things differently, then those who were disabled are suddenly enabled – though the impairment hasn't changed.

An example might be a blind person wanting to attend a conference. If the documents are not in brail or recorded on tape there is not much point in going. The person is excluded – disabled. But with a brail written document and a personal assistant to take notes a person can take part just the same as anyone else. They still have the same visual impairment. But they are not disabled.

The same applies to a wheelchair user wanting to get on a bus. If it has room and access for wheelchairs, they are enabled. If not, they are disabled.

How does the social model work with Trailblazers?

Trailblazers is a campaigning network with young disabled people at the very core of every activity and decision that is made. Our attitude to campaigning and working fits in with the social model of disability, going against the paternalistic attitude of ‘non disabled people know best’ instead saying ‘disabled people know what we need and we are the people you need to listen to make it happen.’  

We know what we could do if the tube station had a lift, if our school had accessible classrooms for all subjects, if our cinema’s staff members had a little more understanding.

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