Social Model of Disability

If you are someone who is disabled, in any capacity, it is likely that you or those around you have viewed your disability in the context of the medical model of disability. The medical model of disability, in essence, views the disabled person as the “problem”. Their body is not up to the standard of able-bodied folks and does not function in the way that society expects it to. According to an overview of the medical model of disability by the University of Oregon1 , with the medical model of disability, “Disability is a deficiency or abnormality” and “The agent of remedy is the professional who affects the arrangements between the individual and society”.

Discussing the social model of disability is incredibly important. It goes without saying that the medical model of disability can be very isolating for the disabled individual and can evoke a lot of challenging feelings. The medical model can lead us to believing that it is our body that is the problem, that we need to be fixed to be worthy. It makes sense that that view of our body can have a very negative impact on our overall wellbeing and mental health.

According to an article from titled The Social Model of Disability Explained by Sara Buder and Rose Perry, Ph.D., “the “social model of disability”—developed by disability rights activists in the 1970s and 80s—suggests that if societies were set up and constructed in a way that was accessible for people with disabilities, those individuals would not be restricted from full participation in the world around them.”

In essence- it is not disabled person at “fault” for having a body that does not perform in a way that society says it should, and we are not there to be “fixed”. Disabled individuals live in a world that is not made for us, not made to accommodate us- but this does not mean that our bodies are at fault. If the environment was free of obstacles, the individual would be able to navigate that environment much more easily, safely, and comfortably. Some examples of lack of accessibility that could be fixed include:

  • An office building that is older (thus not up to ADA standards) with only stairs to enter- this would impede anyone who could not easily ambulate up those stairs. 
  • A space where fire alarms were only auditory (vs auditory plus a visual cue such as a flashing light) would mean that anyone with hearing loss/who is deaf would be unaware of the necessity to leave the building.
  • Even a restaurant where the staff is uneducated on service dog laws, creating a barrier to the disabled handler safely accessing the space.

Those, of course, are a few very brief examples but there are a myriad of examples depending on the type of disability. This changes from person to person and day to day- but there are so, so many ways that public spaces could be made more welcoming to the disability community.

All that said- the social model of disability can help disabled folks make peace with their bodies. It is not the fault of a disabled person’s body. It is not wrong, bad, or broken. It simply is- the same way that any healthy person’s body just is. The symptoms that come along with disability (pain, fatigue, brain fog, etc.) of course have an impact- but none of that is the fault of the disabled person.

Our bodies are not wrong. They are not bad. They do not need to be fixed. When accessibility is in place, so, so many more of us can move through the world more safely. The disability community is a huge, diverse community that deserves to be able to live a full life, without physical or societal restrictions, in the same way able bodied folks do. We deserve access to the same spaces able bodied folks have. Even though we have a long way to go, thanks to the work by past and current disability rights advocates, we are moving towards a more accessible future.


  1. Medical and Social Models of Disability. No Author, No Date.,a%20person%20more%20%22normal.%22
  2. The Social Model of Disability Explained. Buder, Sarah and Perry, Rose, Ph.D. 12 April, no year. Ph.D.,in%20the%20world%20around%20them.