Ways of Thinking About Disability


The two main ways of thinking about disability are the medical model, which focuses on disability as a medical problem to be fixed, and the social model, which focuses on the ways society treats people with disabilities and keeps us from participating.


The medical model of disability sees the problem of disability as a problem with the disabled person’s brain or body. The medical model sees a disabled person and says “We need to get rid of your disability to make your life better.” It’s the most common way of thinking about disability. It puts the focus on fixing a disabled person with treatments, medication, and cures. This is the view of disability used by most organizations that fundraise “for” a disability.

The social model of disability sees the problem of disability as a problem with the society where disabled people live. The social model sees a disabled person and says, “We need to change your environment to make your life better.” When someone has a disability and lives in a society where their ways of thinking, communicating, sensing, or moving are not treated as “normal” or “natural,” their society creates barriers which prevent them from participating in the world.  To fix this, the social model talks about identifying and removing environmental, social, cultural, and attitudinal barriers and instead promoting accessibility, accommodations, supports, universal design, and full participation. The social model does not believe that differences or impairments should be cured or fixed; it focuses instead on “curing” a society that sees disabled people as broken or inferior.

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-List of concrete examples

  • Case example: Someone has photosensitive epilepsy. The medical model says that they shouldn’t do things that may put them in the path of a flashing light until they find a medication that works 100% of the time. The social model says “there is no need for a flash on your camera; please turn it off.”

  • Case example: Some people use mobility devices. Curb cuts and ramps recognize the social model of disability and physically disabled people’s right to participate in the community.

  • Case example: Having handouts in large print and Braille at conferences and other events is a way of thinking about disability that says the event organizers know that not everyone thinks or senses the same way.

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