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 But now, it is limiting and outdated.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

Rights Model

The rights model is primarily a fight for access to the privileges people would otherwise have had if they were not disabled. A focus on rights is not a struggle for fundamental social change; rather, it strives to make changes within the existing system.

The idea behind disability rights is that:

A human rights approach to disability acknowledges that people with disabilities are rights holders and that social structures and policies restricting or ignoring the rights of people with disabilities often lead to discrimination and exclusion. A human rights perspective requires society, particularly governments, to actively promote the necessary conditions for all individuals to fully realize their rights.

This is the definition of DRPI (Disability Rights Promotion International). According to this group and many other rights groups, “As full citizens with equal rights, people with disabilities are entitled to: access to education, equal rights to parenthood, rights to property ownership, access to courts-of-law, political rights such as the right to vote, equal access to employment”

However, the rights approach does not address fundamental flaws within the system that disabled people are seeking inclusion in. For example, the rights model recognizes the right of disabled people to own private property but does not question fundamental injustices attached to property ownership. Further, it does not necessarily address colonialism which has resulted in much of the property ownership in many parts of the world to be a direct result of racism and theft.

It is important to acknowledge that much of the access and privileges that disabled people have today is a direct result of the people who struggled and continue to struggle for disability rights. Many people have fought very hard for disabled people’s inclusion in society and these struggles need to be recognized and celebrated. However, we need to do more than fight for rights within society as it is structured now, we need to fight for social justice for everyone and that means restructuring society.

The Charity Model

The Charity approach to disability viewed as being in the ‘best interests’ of disabled people but it does not consider disabled people’s experiences and knowledge as necessarily valuable or essential. This approach is about well meaning ‘do-gooders’ acting on our behalf without us. Because we aren’t in control of the process little good, or even harm, is often the result.

In the past decades, people who follow the charity model have not so much tried to define disability as they have tried to redefine it. These attempts to redefine or rebrand disability have largely failed because they have been made by people, while well meaning, who are largely not disabled and who have a negative and paternalistic view of disability.

One example of the rebranding of disability through the charity model is the term handicapped. The word handicapped replaced gimp, crip/crippled, and lame. Handicap is an offensive and unacceptable term as it is derived from a gaming term which means to equal out a disadvantage by, for instance, spotting points or playing with one hand tied behind your back. The word handicap implies an inherent disadvantage that undermines the quality of disabled people’s lives. Handicapped later became differently-abled, which establishes, by definition, what normal is and that we aren’t it.

Similarly, retard was transformed into slow and then to developmentally delayed or developmentally disabled. Again, these terms establish a norm, which is problematic. These terms also embed the concept in them that there is one line of development for people. They imply that people with intellectual disabilities have somehow stalled in their “development” and are fixed at a spot in time where their lives will be forever unfulfilled. They don’t have room for the plethora of meaningful experiences that people with intellectual disabilities undergo.

Challenged is another term adopted by others on our behalf as a way of describing our lives. Where the medical model inserts diagnostic labels that are individualizing and define people’s entire identities, politically correct liberals individualize our oppression by calling us challenged. This label tells us that all obstacles we face are because of our own minds and bodies, not because of social inequities and inaccessibility.

Furthermore, challenged, like developmentally disabled, differently-abled, and handicapped does nothing to change our lives, it doesn’t build ramps, or housing; it doesn’t provide interpreters or personal support workers; it doesn’t bring equality or autonomy; and, it doesn’t abolish segregation or discrimination. The attempts by well meaning liberals to establish “politically correct” terms to define disability are just that, attempts to dictate how things change for our benefit. In this case, nothing changes but the label.

The entire charity approach is designed to ensure that no real change ever occurs. It is about people doing good for others, it is not about change, it is not about liberation, it is about the agents of charity – the do-gooders feeling better about themselves and the world they live in.

It brilliantly co-opts the language of resistance talking about “fighting,” “resisting,”
and “beating” disabilities.


[Image of a green Shamrock that says From Your Heart: A Shamrock to Fight Muscular Dystrophy – MDA]

Charities, however, identify our disabilities as the things that oppress us, not social barriers, not systemic issues – our bodies, our minds (the things that give us life and make us who we are).


[Image of an arthritis society web banner with blue text in all capitals that says: “Arthritis: Fight It!” a blue bird (possibly a dove) is between the words arthritis and fight it]

The things to be resisted are those are our disabilities and no fundamental social change should ever occur under this view. This is in itself an oppressive view and why the social model and the radical model have worked to reclaim and redefine disabled people’s points of resistance and fight for social justice rather than the elimination of disability.