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Last updateSun, 06 Nov 2016 10am

Back You are here: Home Home Site Sections Rights & Legislation Society Social and Medical Models of Disability

Social and Medical Models of Disability

The Medical Model of Disability

Under this model of disability, disabled people`s inability to join in society is seen as a direct result of having an impairment and not as the result of features of our society which can be changed.

When people such as policy makers and managers think about disability in this individual way they tend to concentrate their efforts on `compensating` people with impairments for what is `wrong` with their bodies by, for example, targeting `special` benefits at them and providing segregated `special` services for them.

The medical model of disability also affects the way disabled people think about themselves. Many disabled people internalise the negative message that all disabled people’s problems stem from not having `normal` bodies. Disabled people too can be led to believe that their impairments automatically prevent them from participating in social activities.

This attitude can make disabled people less likely to challenge their exclusion from mainstream society.

The Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability makes the important distinction between `impairment` and `disability`.

The social model has been worked out by disabled people who feel that the individual model does not provide an adequate explanation for their exclusion from mainstream society - because their experiences have shown them that in reality most of their problems are not caused by their impairments, but by the way society is organised.

In a social model of disability the key definitions are:


An injury, illness, or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a long term effect on physical appearance and/or limitation of function within the individual that differs from the commonplace.


The loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to social and environmental barriers.

In this model, the individual model definitions of impairment and disability are combined as `impairment`.This means that both the cause of functional limitation and the functional limitation within the individual itself are separated from external factors.

Disability is shown as being caused by `barriers` or elements of social organisation which take no or little account of people who have impairments.

Society is shown to disable people who have impairments because the way it has been set up prevents disabled people from taking part in every day life. It follows that if disabled people are to be able to join in mainstream society, the way society is organised must be changed. Removing the barriers which exclude (disable) people who have impairments can bring about this change.

Barriers can be:

  • Prejudice and stereotypes

  • Inflexible organisational procedures and practices

  • Inaccessible information

  • Inaccessible buildings; and,

  • Inaccessible transport

Also, disabling barriers experienced in the past can continue to have an adverse effect.

For example, those disabled people who attended segregated schools may have gained lower academic qualifications than their non-disabled peers, simply because their `special` school failed to provide a proper mainstream curriculum.

These barriers have nothing to do with individual disabled people`s bodies, they are created by people which means it is possible to remove them.

You can take a social approach to disability by identifying and getting rid of the disabling barriers which are within your control such as teaching practices and curriculum design.