Social Model

The Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) separated the idea of disability from the idea of impairment in 1976. They said:

Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.

by this definition requiring a wheelchair is the impairment where the inability to enter certain buildings is the disability. This definition sent shock waves through the disability rights community.

This definition set impairment as the physical or mental “limitations” apart from the social barriers that are disabling.

Michael Oliver, a disabled British academic and author of Understanding Disability: from Theory to Practice a disabled British academic, expanded on this idea, saying:

It is not individual limitations, of whatever kind, which are the cause of the problem but society’s failure to provide appropriate services and adequately ensure the needs of disabled people are taken in to account in its social organization.

The separation of impairment and disability was a revolutionary idea at the time. It took the discussion away from disabled people’s own bodies and minds and made it about social conditions, access and oppression.

The social model has become the broadly accepted view of disability by most disabled activists and academics.

They have promoted it because it puts forward the position that there are fundamental problems with the way that society approaches disabled people. While this is very much the case, allowing this dichotomy reinforces the ableist notions that there are problems with or flaws in all disabled people’s bodies or minds rather than acknowledging that disability is an aspect of basic human diversity.

The social model establishes or reinforces what is normal and people with “impairments” as being outside of that.

At the time, the social model was a revolutionary idea. But now, it is limiting and outdated.

Tom Shakespeare and Nicholas Watson have argued that, like the sex/gender dichotomy that was used by feminists to advance their goals in the past, the impairment/disability duality is both socially constructed and limiting to contemporary disability discourse. They state that:

The words we use and the discourses we deploy to represent impairment are socially and culturally determined. There is no pure or natural body, existing outside of discourse.

The idea that disability is socially constructed and impairment is a biologically reality, as promoted by the social model, only serves to reinforce ableist notions. Like disability, impairment is also a social construct. This is why the Radical Model is a far better way to view disability.

This doesn’t mean that there are no biological factors; rather, our social perceptions inform how we relate to those functions and place social value on states of being that may otherwise be neutral.

In-text links in this post:

Michael Oliver

Understanding Disability: from Theory to Practice


Tom Shakespeare and Nicholas Watson