Pros and cons of social model of disability (2023)

Using the social model of disability as a theory instead of the medical model can change people’s outlooks on what other people can achieve, and how organisations and our environments should be structured. People who follow this way of thinking will be able to see past the outdated policies and procedures that can be a barrier to people with learning disabilities leading full and active lives.

  • What is the Social Model of Disability?
  • You’ve probably used the Social Model of Disability
  • Does the Social Model of Disability exclude medical treatment?
  • Criticisms of the Social Model of Disability
  • A brief history of the Social Model of Disability
  • Mike Oliver: advocate for the Social Model of Disability

Despite much progression in the public perception of people with learning disabilities, there is still some stigma about what people with learning disabilities can and can’t do. Using the social model of disability, there should be no limits set on what people with learning disabilities can achieve; the key is finding the support which they need to enable them to achieve these things.

The academic Tom Shakespeare writes on the need to reject treating the social model as a ‘sacred cow’ that must not be challenged, instead proposing a movement towards a medical and social continuum, with the central argument that as we are all ‘impaired’ in some manner, it is not the core component of disability. The impact of the body on one’s life is thus included, without needing to divide between ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’ people.

Social model often ensures physical and mental health and broader sphere of participating in active life. The model permits most understated discrimination of people that succeed to lead productive lives irrespective of physical damage. The disadvantage of social model is the approach that runs the threat of excessive breadth and to incorporate all life. Therefore, they do not differentiate among the state to become healthy the concerns of being healthy neither do they differentiate among “health” and “health determinants”. In short, the biological model of health is mainly defined from the absence of disease, from the model that is well-matched with positive meanings in relation to balance of normal functioning. The social model health is actually a positive state of well-being and wholeness linked with however this is not mainly explained from the non-existence of disease, physical, mental impairment and illness (Gross, 2010). Overall the concepts of ill health and health are not balanced. Non-existences of disease might be part of health, however health is considered more than the “absence of disease”.

Lifestyle Choices Relevant To Health, How Health Status Is Perceived and Provision of Health Care Services

Human behaviour often plays an important role to maintain health and prevention of disease. With an eye to lower the considerable mortality and morbidity linked with health related issue, health professionals have twisted to models of behaviour for guiding the

Disabled journalist and campaigner Fleur Perry explains what the Social Model of Disability is, where it originated from and why it’s as important today as it was when first used back in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, disabled people had little legal protection, representation in government, or understanding within their community.

Almost 50 years on, we have the Equality Act 2010. We’ve elected disabled MPs into the House of Commons. And, although there are still barriers to full social inclusion, attitudes have changed and are continuing to change.

All of this is a result of decades of hard work by campaigners and allies. Ordinary disabled people sharing ideas and solving problems, writing letters and participating in peaceful protests.

Whenever I look back, I am amazed at how much I owe to those who came before me. The right to an education. To somewhere safe to live within my local community. To care that meets my needs, and the choice of how to manage that.

But, some are still wrongfully denied these rights. Peer-to-peer support, free legal advice, and campaigns driven by the experiences of disabled people who are struggling, continue to make a change and help every disabled person to access their rights.

(Video) Thoughts on Accessibility & Why I Disagree with the Social Model of Disability

What’s amazing is that a common thread links today’s trending topics to the groundbreaking ideas of the 1970s: the Social Model of Disability.

What is the Social Model of Disability?

The Social Model of Disability is the concept that disability results from the interaction between a person’s characteristics and their unsuitable environment – not their medical condition.

An environment filled with barriers will create a significant difference in experience for a large number of disabled people. Conversely, an inclusive environment will offer the minimum level of intrusion for the experiences of all but enable disabled people to live their lives equally.

To improve the experiences of disabled people, you don’t need to medically ‘fix’ everyone, but to think practically about what the goals are and removing environmental barriers.

Put simply, disability is the experience of being a square peg in a round-hole world. And the world is changeable.

Here are some examples:

1. Two shops sit side by side. One has steps to the entrance and the other has a level entrance. The first places an expectation on customers to climb steps while the other does not have this barrier built in.

The shop without steps is accessible to more customers. To any business owners reading this – portable ramps are £50, just buy a ramp. Or just don’t build steps.

2. Two bus companies invest in a new fleet of buses. One has audio-visual announcements while the other does not. The first bus company notes higher customer numbers and better customer satisfaction. Customers report that the new audio-visual announcements make it easier to keep track of where they are and to find the right stop.

The other bus company places an expectation for customers to remember the order of the stops and to keep an eye on the screen. This is irrespective of a person’s memory or vision, not to mention the likelihood of someone standing in the way.

To any bus companies reading this – invest in technology if you want happy customers who will keep coming back and paying your fares. Councils – if going green is part of your visionary, dynamic five-year plan, remember that more people use buses when they’re user-friendly.

3. Two companies are busy designing the same tech. One offers flexible working hours and working from home. The other has a fixed 9am to 5pm workday pattern.

The first is going to be able to recruit and retain employees who need to schedule their employment around their needs. This means it is able to hire based on qualifications and experience, as opposed to the ability to be Dolly Parton.

The first company also considers how customers might interact with their product and use it in conjunction with assistive technology, and builds their product with additional accessibility features. The second company builds it with a one-size-fits-all approach. The first company ultimately sells more, as its overall customer base is larger.

(Video) Social and Medical Model of Disability

Companies – is the work pattern you’re recruiting for putting off skilled employees? Are you tailoring your product to work for your existing customer base, or do you want more customers?

You’ve probably used the Social Model of Disability

The social model says anyone, anywhere, can make stuff work better. By sharing experiences and pushing for practical change, direct and indirect discrimination can be reduced and inclusion can be increased.

“Why’s that like that? That doesn’t work.”

“Could we make it like this?”

“Let’s do it!”

If you’ve ever had that conversation, you’ve used the social model.

Does the Social Model of Disability exclude medical treatment?

No. The ‘medical model’ says it’s my fault I can’t climb stairs and I need to be repaired. Or, just shut up and wait quietly for a couple of decades until they figure out how to do that. The social model, on the other hand, asks if there’s a different way to achieve that goal and says it’s probably quicker to get in a lift.

The social model does not say that medical knowledge is useless, but it requires that medical treatment is based on what the patient feels is important for them. This could be pain management, advice on how to stay in the best health or assistance when something flares up.

Medical practice consistent with the social model looks something like this:

  1. You don’t get a lesser level of medical care as a result of the attitudes of medical professionals towards disabled people.
  2. Your other needs are met through reasonable adjustments. For example, large-print leaflets made available at your maternity appointments.
  3. Decisions on any options are entirely yours. A doctor or nurse can give you information on the pros and cons of treatment, but, where possible, you make the decision on what happens to your body without feeling pressured.
  4. Medical thinking stops at the doctor’s door. Medical professionals should not have control over where and how someone lives, who they live with or how they spend their time.
  5. Unnecessary or arduous procedures are not pushed on anyone.

A few years ago, I asked a physio for some exercises to strengthen my back. She gave me a full-body MOT, and gasped at my ankles, which are turned inwards from 25 plus years of using an electric wheelchair instead of standing.

“We need to do some surgery on those,” she gabbled. “I’ll make you a referral to…” I stopped her there and explained the dangers of unnecessary and painful surgery. Anaesthetic is risky for me and my ankles perform their only needed function of wearing high-heeled boots very well, thank you very much.

Your needs and values come first, not a professional’s idea of ‘normal’.

Criticisms of the Social Model of Disability

One of the great criticisms of the social model is that it doesn’t match up to the experiences of people with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, anxiety or depression. No, it may not be a solution to every situation all of the time. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything to offer.

How many times have we heard the same story of someone going to the GP, explaining their symptoms, and being sent away without being listened to? They go back again and again, and months or years later they finally get a diagnosis. After further months on a waiting list, they eventually get the support they were asking for in the first place.

(Video) Social model of mental health (PSY)

Also, how many times have we overheard people describing others as:

  • “just lazy”
  • “putting it on”
  • “attention seeking”
  • “needs to snap out of it”?

Social model thinking classes these issues – people’s attitudes – as barriers too, obstacles that can be removed. If people were listened to and able to access the appropriate support quickly, then this would be a significant step forward.

If public understanding were to be improved, then people wouldn’t end up spending time explaining the basics over and over, confronting stigma and trying to remove the existing attitudinal barrier.

A brief history of the Social Model of Disability

The starting point for the social model was the publication of The Fundamental Principles of Disability by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) in 1976.

It stated that: “In our view, it is society that disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society” (UPIAS, 1976). You can read the rest by visiting the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation’s website.

Through decades of collaboration, research, and lobbying, calls for change gained traction. Protests, political battles, and a growing body of evidence put more and more pressure on the government to act. The UK’s first anti-discrimination legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, finally hit the statute books.

Though not an all-encompassing solution to every discriminatory action, for the first time there was a way to get justice when something went wrong.

Disabled people suddenly had rights, in education, in employment, in day-to-day life.

My generation grew up with an answer for everything, knowing: “You can’t do that because the law says” and asking; “can’t you just make a reasonable adjustment, please?”

Despite its flaws and gaps, there’s no doubt that this had a lasting impact on the way disabled people have interacted with the rest of society.

Wind forward a decade and a half and we have the Equality Act 2010. The duty to make adjustments is explained in more detail in this act. Indirect discrimination (“I didn’t mean it”) is dealt with. The Public Sector Equality Duty appears, which says that public authorities must have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality, and to tackle prejudice.

Yes, not only is discrimination no longer allowed, but now every taxpayer-funded organisation is duty-bound to help squash it out entirely.

This has not, we can say with some certainty, made inequality a distant memory. In 2016, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability reviewed evidence from hundreds of individuals and organisations and found many areas where major change is still needed.

Housing, transport, public buildings and services, restaurants, shops, and access to legal aid are all areas that need work. But work is happening.

(Video) M-24. Social model of mental health

Identifying the issues is always the first step in resolving them. Here, in the Equality Act, we have a pretty clear vision of what the world could be like and how disabled people could live battling future barriers.

Small local groups and larger, more established disabled people’s organisations are continuously monitoring, writing, surveying and challenging the big and the small to follow the law. People are individually and collectively taking the power of the law into their own hands, and winning.

Underpinning all of this is the idea that these are solvable problems, and that we deserve to live in the most inclusive world we can create. We owe that entirely to the social model and those who created and shared it.

Mike Oliver: advocate for the Social Model of Disability

In March, one of the strongest advocates of the social model and Britain’s first Professor of Disability Studies passed away at the age of 74. Mike Oliver, we salute you.

Re-reading some of Mike’s work today, there’s a sense of humour in his work, but veering toward dark sarcasm. He is unbowing, irreverent and always mocking with effortless sophistication.

His words always have a powerful hidden message – we are good enough as we are.

His not-so-hidden message is that the rest of society can either learn to accept us as part of our shared world or get their judging expectations out of our faces.

Non-disabled researchers whose work had little practical value and failed to take disabled people’s own views or research into consideration were shown little mercy. Instead, honest first-person accounts of his own experiences and those of others were held up as examples of what barriers existed.

He truly showed what effect these barriers had on disabled people and society as a whole, and how a little creative thinking can go a long way.

Control is a key theme throughout his work.

  • Does a disabled person make decisions about their own life, health, path or future freely?
  • Do barriers, expectations and media representations get in the way?
  • Are we pushed to behave a certain way?
  • Why do we think the way we do?
  • What could we achieve if we were free of all the ideas that tell us we can’t because we do not fit the world?
  • What if the world could fit us?

What I would say to Mike Oliver, right now, if I could, is thank you.

Thank you for giving us the problem-solving tool that is the social model. Thank you for my education, my home, my career options, for everything.

Thank you for the lens offered in your writings that can give a new perspective to every reader’s experiences.

Visit the Universities of Leeds’ website, the Centre for Disability Studies, to find out more about the Social Model of Disability and Mike Oliver’s work.

(Video) What Is The Disability Arts Ghetto? (...and how do we get out?) [CC]

By Fleur Perry

More on Disability Horizons…


What are the advantages and disadvantages of the social model? ›

The model permits most understated discrimination of people that succeed to lead productive lives irrespective of physical damage. The disadvantage of social model is the approach that runs the threat of excessive breadth and to incorporate all life.

What are the advantages of the social model of disability? ›

The social model helps us recognise barriers that make life harder for disabled people. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers disabled people more independence, choice and control.

What are the weaknesses of the social model of disability? ›

Criticisms of the social model of disability

Impairment may also become disability through the experience of 'structural oppression; cultural stereotypes, attitudes, bureaucratic hierarchies, market mechanisms, and all that is pertaining to how society is structured and organized' (Thomas 2010: 42–3).

What is a negative about the social model? ›

It is argued that one of the main limitations of the social model is that it essentially further disables someone who is already disabled, by not properly identifying the disability (Shakespeare, 2006).

What does the social model of disability focus on? ›

The social model of disability also focuses on people's attitudes towards disability and recognises that attitudes towards disability can present barriers for disabled people in the same way the physical environment can.

How does the social model of disability supports positive attitudes? ›

When barriers are removed, people can work towards being as independent as they can be and be included and equal in society. The social model puts the focus on the individual and their unique needs and not on their condition. This person-centred approach helps develop positive attitudes in society.

What good is the social model of disability Adam M Samaha? ›

Adam Samaha, "What Good Is the Social Model of Disability?" (University of Chicago Public Law & Legal Theory Working Paper No. 166, 2007). WHAT GOOD IS THE SOCIAL MODEL OF DISABILITY? A social model of disability relates a person's disadvantage to the combination of personal traits and social setting.

What are the key features of the social model of disability? ›

The social model of disability says that it is society which disables impaired people.
Some of the key ways people are disabled by society are:
  • prejudice.
  • labelling.
  • ignorance.
  • lack of financial independence.
  • families being over protective.
  • not having information in formats which are accessible to them.

What are the disadvantages of the medical model? ›

  • It ignores the view that health and illness are relative and are socially constructed.
  • Coward (1989) points out that it suggests health problems are individual and ignores the social factors which can cause illness.
  • It focuses too much on treatment, rather than prevention.
Jan 31, 2014

What is the difference between social and medical models of disability? ›

The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised. The medical model of disability says people are disabled by their impairments or differences.

What are the disadvantages of the medical model? ›

  • It ignores the view that health and illness are relative and are socially constructed.
  • Coward (1989) points out that it suggests health problems are individual and ignores the social factors which can cause illness.
  • It focuses too much on treatment, rather than prevention.
Jan 31, 2014

Why is the social model of health good? ›

The social model of health aims to improve personal and community well-being and health by evaluating the conditions of social and environmental health causes in conjunction with biological and medical considerations (Quipps, 2011) both at local and national level working to eradicate health inequalities.

Why is the social model of health better? ›

The social model of health places importance on the changes that needs to be made by society, empowering people to be in charge of their own health and lifestyles, in order to make the population healthier.

What is the difference between medical model and social model? ›

The medical model tries to remedy disability through a medical cure or by trying to make the person appear less disabled or more “normal”, whereas the social model says that the remedy is a change in the interaction between the individual and society.


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