The Social vs Medical Models of Disability: Why Are They Important?

The Social vs Medical Models of Disability: Why Are They Important?

Disability is a topic which has always had different perspectives. Historically, two main frameworks have been used to explain the interactions between disabled people and society: the medical and social models of disability. Examining the differences between the two, this blog highlights issues with the medical model and why we should encourage the use of the social model to further steps toward disability equality.


Have you ever thought about how disability is perceived in modern society? From calling someone ‘wheelchair bound’ to the common absence of accessible infrastructure, disabled people are often neglected and excluded in society.

When surveyed, 81% of all disabled respondents felt there was some sort of prejudice against disabled people in Britain. But why and how have these prejudices formed? Key has been the very basis of how disability is modelled and portrayed in our society.

In a growing movement to ensure everyone has equal access to life’s opportunities, we must consider how people with disabilities are treated and seen in everyday life. Historically, two main frameworks have been used to explain the interactions between disabled people and society. These are the medical and social models of disability.

The Medical Model

The medical model has been the traditional framework for perceiving disabilities throughout Western history. The model views disability as an abnormality, emphasising what is ‘defective’ with the individual.

This view of ‘disability as a deficiency’ is extremely harmful because it portrays disabled people as powerless individuals in need of charity and pity. The outdated model suggests that disability is a ‘problem’ that will reduce an individual’s quality of life. Resultantly, resources are often focused on how to ‘cure’ disabled people, instead of investing in inclusive solutions that improve their quality of life.

The Social Model

Driven by the unacceptable treatment of disabled people under the medical model, leaders of the Disability Rights Movements in the 1960s established the social model of disability. This model pulled away from traditional perceptions of disability as a deficiency, reforming it to be centred around equal rights and accessibility. Here at Patchwork Hub, like many inclusive organisations, we use the social model.

The social model of disability states that people are ‘disabled’ by the inaccessible barriers in society, and not by their impairments.

A barrier could be something physical, like being in a wheelchair and unable to get up the stairs because there is no lift. Or a barrier could be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming there are certain lives disabled people cannot lead or things they cannot achieve.

Under the social model, therefore, an impairment is a physical, sensory, or cognitive difference, but not a disability in itself. A disability is a social consequence that is experienced when differences are not accommodated for. The social model seeks to remove barriers by reminding society that accessibility is a right, not a privilege. It’s often a lack of accessibility and awareness of barriers that prevents access to life’s opportunities. Therefore, it’s society’s duty to improve accessibility so that these barriers are removed.

The Models in Action

Things that may seem mundane to non-disabled people, from the use of cursive fonts to narrow shopping aisles in stores, may be inaccessible to people with disabilities. Concerningly, studies found that 90% of all websites don’t even meet the most basic standards of the international Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This means that people with certain cognitive or visual impairments cannot easily access the vast majority of the Internet. In line with the social model, we must establish solutions in all parts of life to remove barriers that disabled people experience, such as:

  • Information – offering alternative formats such as braille, Easy Read, and voiceovers for individuals with visual impairments.

  • Social Support – providing social workers, resources, funds, and platforms.

  • Infrastructure – implementing tactile paving, lifts, ramps, etc. in public areas.

  • Attitude and Discrimination – through education and raising awareness.

How can the different models of disability affect employment? Under the medical model, if someone with dyslexia applies for a job, their employer may reject their application believing their disability is a disadvantage. However, under the social model, the employer focuses on the talents and skills of the individual that are irrelevant to their impairment. Employers accommodate the adjustments their employee needs, setting up policies that help the individual like using dyslexia-friendly fonts, offering assistive text software or promoting co-worker support.

Crucially, disabled people should not have to ‘fix’ themselves to access the same opportunities and quality of life as non-disabled people. In a world where accessibility is placed at the forefront, there should be no doubt about accommodating everyone’s individual needs.

At its core, the social model allows disabled people to live with agency, ease, and possess equal opportunities to their non-disabled peers. Mike Oliver, the person who named the ‘social model’ and a leading figure of the British disability movement, notably said “it was all about having an optimistic view of what disabled people could achieve if many of the barriers they faced were removed.”

What can we do? Looking to the Future

Although the model is not a perfect solution, it’s a step in the right direction in reshaping attitudes towards disability. Highlighting this forward movement, the model was officially endorsed and implemented by the UK Government Equalities Office in 2014. In the past few years, the awareness of accessible infrastructure and facilities has also grown rapidly throughout the UK and beyond.

In 2017, Chester was the first British city to be crowned the most accessible city in Europe. Having spent £500,000 annually on improving the city’s accessibility since 2009, Chester mandated all public buses and licensed taxis in the city to be fully accessible. They even made their famous Roman walls entirely wheelchair-friendly. The city’s unique corporate disability forum also ensured disability access would be a priority in all future projects.

However inspiring, there’s still a long way to go. Studies show that 40% of local council websites in the UK still fail basic accessibility tests and councils lack the required funds to build accessible infrastructure. As part of a larger community, we must continue to advocate and raise awareness for the social inclusion of disabilities, allowing everyone to participate in society equally! The road to equality is long, but together we can make a difference.

Did you find this article about the medical vs social models of disability interesting? Tag, share and let us know your thoughts!

Written by Clarisse Tsang

Published: 24th May 2022

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