The social model of disability

The 'social model of disability' is about a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment - whether physical, sensory or intellectual. The barriers disabled people encounter include inaccessible education systems and working environments, inadequate disability benefits, discriminatory health and social support services, inaccessible transport, inaccessible houses and public buildings and amenities, and the devaluing of disabled people through negative images in the media - films, television and newspapers.

The social model of disability can also be used to understand the family lives and personal relationships of disabled people. This is because the cultural environment in which we all grow up usually sees impairment as unattractive and unwanted. Consequently parents often don't know how to bring up a child born with impairment so their feelings and the way they treat them are dependent upon what they have learned about disability from the world around them. People who acquire impairment later in life also have to rely on this cultural backdrop and so it is not surprising that many people with and without impairments do not know how to respond. This helps to explain why, for some people, coming to terms with a disabled lifestyle represents a personal or family tragedy.

Furthermore, the social model of disability does not ignore questions and concerns relating to impairment and/or the importance of medical and therapeutic treatments. A social model perspective acknowledges that in many cases, the suffering associated with disabled lifestyles is due primarily to the lack of medical and other services.

The social model also recognises that for many people coming to terms with the consequences of impairment in a society that devalues disabled people and disabled lifestyles is often a personal tragedy. But the tragedy is that our society, and increasingly other societies, continue to discriminate, exclude and oppress people viewed and labeled 'disabled' and this is the subject matter of emancipatory disability research.