Exploring the Social Model of Disability

When discussing Disability there are typically two models that are referred to: the Medical Model and the newer Social Model. Preference for and views on are often tied up in social politics, meaning options are contingent on the condition, experience and onset of each individual. While there is the capacity for these to be combined into a more integrated model, they are usually discussed as polar opposites because of the values and beliefs at the core of each.

The Medical Model is largely focused on the affliction rather than the person and is underpinned by the mentality of: “How can we fix this?” The Medical Model sees Disability as the person’s responsibility to deal with — not anyone else’s issue. It’s not the fault of a building for not having an accessible ramp — it’s the fault of the Disability causing the individual to use a wheelchair and therefore not allowing them to enter the building. Disability, in this sense, is seen as a problem to be solved. It positions medical professionals as experts, not just of the condition they are treating but of the person’s life experience with that condition. The Medical Model doesn’t allow for the idea that you can have a functional life with Disability — the focus is on the negative ways that the Disability affects you.

Inherent to the Social Model is a different belief: “Disability” is not a condition but the way society is structured to oppress certain individuals. To be “Disabled” is to experience exclusion caused by a number of barriers — including, but certainly not limited to: physical, environmental, social, cultural and legal. It’s no longer the condition that means the wheelchair user can’t enter the building — the building is at fault for not having an accessible ramp. Versions of the Social Model posit that Disability as we know it would not exist if society were more equipped to accommodate every need. In essence: people don’t need fixing, society does. Unlike the Medical Model, the Social Model puts the individual at the centre, values the individual as the expert in how they experience their condition, and opens the door for ongoing discourse that involves the individual in the decisions made about their life.

Over time, modern interventions and policy have come to be structured around a Social Model — that said, the value of a Medical Model is not lost on the Disability community. Medical intervention is still important, as many individuals would not be able to survive without it, but the underlying mentality is the key aspect, and that is why an integrated model is ideal.

YouTuber Robyn Lambird describes an integrated model as one that would emulate a ‘fitness strengths-based model’ of “this is what you can do, let’s work on that”, or rather, “what provisions, treatment and equipment do you need to be the best you can?” This approach allows for a focus on the individual, the way they experience their life and how to make it better. This approach does not exclude those with Disabling factors that are not caused by society (which a generalised Social Model does). Chronic pain is one example: it’s not society causing me to stay in bed, it’s the pain.

An integrated model allows for the condition to be treated where necessary, the individual’s strengths to be highlighted, and includes an understanding of society’s role in “Disabling” an individual.

An integrated model also leaves room for a sense of identity within the Disability. This is very important because many individuals are shaped by their conditions, which can inform aspects of their personality or even change the way their personality presents. Disability naturally becomes a part of who you are. A Medical Model tells the individual that they need fixing — but this is wrong, so we must overcome and move past this notion.

Overall, however, a Social Model (regardless of integration) is not only a more accurate and useful approach to Disability policy formation, but also everyday interactions. The Social Model can inform the ways we discuss Disability, the way we utilise language, and how we practice activism. It’s a valuable approach and has and will continue to be empowering for many individuals, because the prior general consensus was that Disability meant that there was something wrong with you. The Social Model has enabled individuals to advocate for themselves in new — asking for adjustments is no longer considered ‘burdensome’ but an expected right. The blame is now on the location for not being accessible, not the condition causing accessibility issues. The Social Model allowed for a major turning point in the conceptualisation of Disability and of Disability care, and it will be interesting to see how it will continue to inform public policy and practice and the overall culture around being Disabled.fixthesystem.png

But what would a fully accessible society look like?

The best modern-media example of what a fully accessible society would look like can be seen in the animated film Zootopia. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it, let me paint a picture. Zootopia is a film centred around an anthropomorphic rabbit who wants to become a police officer. This career is one that is typically closed off to animals of her stature (small) and as such the idea seems like a joke to many. The rabbit follows her dream and goes to the city Zootopia: a place where anyone can be anything. The rest of the story is not particularly relevant, because the structure of the city itself is where I want to take the conversation. The city is designed to be accessible for every kind of animal: there are specific areas for smaller animals, specific traffic lanes, a tall spot where coffee can be served to Giraffes, and climate-controlled areas for animals from different climates. Basically, there’s just a whole range of accommodations so that everyone living in the city can be included.

Building a city with the Social Model of Disability in mind does sound like a utopia, but it would also be incredibly tricky in practice. There will always be things that are accessible to some but not others; if one condition is considered, the adjustments put in place could actually make an environment inaccessible for someone with a different condition. This does not mean there shouldn’t be a range of accessibility considerations automatically put in place — such as closed captioning on films, accessible walkways and entrances, photo descriptions, online versions of content and AUSLAN translation for public events. These aren’t necessarily hard adjustments either, but they can be the difference between someone being able or not able to communicate and engage with content and everyday life. Zootopia may be a bit far off, but basic levels of accessibility are not.

What about Person-First language?

Person-First language emerged from the Medical Model as a way of separating an individual from their condition — it means you’re not a “Disabled person” but a “person with a Disability”. Person-First language implies having a condition is a bad thing that you absolutely shouldn’t want to be associated with. It is mainly allies that use Person-First language, many of us within the Disability sphere use “Disabled person” as a way of ascribing identity.

In line with the Social Model, the use of the phrase “Disabled person” utilises the word “Disabled” as an adjective to describe what is happening to the individual as a result of societal inaccessibility and social barriers. For some, and definitely not all, the use of “Disabled person” is an act of empowerment and a direct linkage to identity.

The same can be said about the use of a capital “D”, which turns “Disabled” and “Disability” into nouns and gives them the power of identity. This is significant because, for many of us, our Disability is a massive part of our identity. I will always refer to myself as “Autistic” rather than “someone with Autism” because my diagnosis is just as much a part of me and my identity as anything else.

It is worth mentioning that if someone uses Disability-First language to describe themselves, that is their choice, just the same as if they use Person-First language — neither should not be policed by others. There is nothing more frustrating than being halfway through a conversation and mentioning “I’m Autistic”, when the conversation halts so an able-bodied individual can say: “Oh no, honey, you’re not ‘Autistic’ you’re ‘someone with Autism’”.

The important thing to note is that everyone is different. The Social Model embraces this fact, because the individual is the expert on their condition and that includes how they identify themselves within it.

According to the Social Model, is feminism “Disabling”?

While I am by no means an expert, I would say that feminism as a whole is not Disabling — but there are elements within modern-day feminism that can be, such as the way activism is presented.

There are many barriers to engagement, and they can be small things like campaigns stating: “I stand with X”. The idea is evidently to show solidarity with the individual the campaign is supporting (such as a recent one involving Kesha) but what this actually does is linguistically locks out those who physically cannot stand. I know, it sounds like a petty thing, but it is a little thing that doesn’t take much effort to alter. Saying “I’m with X” or “in solidarity with X” is just as valuable, and it doesn’t lock out anyone.

Other things are a little bigger, such as rallies that are designed around marching. I personally can’t attend marches because the crowds combined with the physical effort of marching somewhere is exhausting. That’s not to say that marches should be banned — it’s about making little adjustments to allow for a big impact: such as planning an accessible march route, and sharing a detailed map with rest areas and bathrooms marked. It is also necessary to have an AUSLAN translator available to sign what is being said during speeches, and to make it known prior to the event that there will be a translator there.

Other Disabling factors are the way photos and videos are shared online — many campaign pieces involve visual media, and having a photo caption that states what is in the photo allows visually impaired individuals to engage. Closed captioning on videos enables hearing impaired individuals (and those with other conditions that find closed captioning useful, such as ADHD and Autism) to view and understand content. Content Warnings for sensitive topics is highly valuable, not because it ‘encourages people not to engage with content’, but because it allows people to prepare for what they are about to read, see or hear, and gives them the opportunity to put an action plan in place. Even having accessible food and drink options available at events is valuable.

Ultimately, it is just little acts of consideration. These little accommodations often the difference between someone being able to engage or not engage with content. The small and relatively easy things are often the difference between something being “Disabling” or “Enabling”.