Like all academic disciplines, disability studies is grounded in theory. And like all academic disciplines, disability studies is constantly redefining what that theory means. That means that none of the information presented here is conclusive or exhaustive; as scholars in the field have pointed out, each of the leading theories of disability have their flaws. Given the complexity of disability — the range of conditions through which it presents itself, and the myriad ways people experience those conditions in their daily lives — any schema that tries to explain the disability experience is necessarily reductive.
Disability studies scholars primarily draw on two main models of disability — the medical model and the social model of disability. And as the field continues to evolve, the medical and social models are increasingly seen not as two individual models through which to view disability, but two groups of models. For simplicity’s sake, they are introduced here as individual models, with accompanying endnotes about emergent models at the end of this page.
The medical model
In One Sentence:People are disabled by their differences, which are inherently bad and in need of fixing.
The medical model of disability is the one most prevalent in society, so it’s the lens through which you’re probably accustomed to viewing disability. It’s why we perceive “disability” as meaning that something is wrong with a person, whether physically or psychologically.
And because something is wrong with that person, the medical model says, that person must be “suffering” and unable to function as well as someone without a disability could. In other words, it’s a tragic circumstance. Disability is a problem, and we as humans are naturally inclined to try to fix problems.
How do we fix the problem? In this case, as its name suggests, that “fixing” often comes by way of medical intervention, whether that’s through medication, therapy, surgery, prosthetics or some other form of treatment. Ideally, the result of this medical intervention is that the individual is cured of disability — the problem is solved.
And what if the disability can’t be cured? Then it’s a problem the disabled person has to deal with. Since that problem is located within the individual person, it’s not a matter of concern to anyone else. For example, if a wheelchair user is unable to access the second floor of a building because the building doesn’t have an elevator, that’s the wheelchair user’s problem.
More broadly, the medical model places the onus on the disabled person to conform to the rest of society. The person is the problem, the medical model says, so we need to change the person.
Words often associated with the medical model:
Problem, impairment, defect, deficit, deformity, abnormality, cure
The social model
In One Sentence:Disability is not a personal problem to be overcome by an individual, but a failure of society to be inclusive or accessible.
The social model, on which much of disability studies is predicated, stands in direct contrast to the medical model. Where the medical model holds that disability is a personal problem, situated within an individual and to be overcome by that individual, the social model posits that disability is instead the result of a failure of society to be inclusive or accessible. It’s these barriers in society that disable people, as opposed to their impairments (if society were fully accessible, those impairments would present no issue).
What exactly are those societal barriers? The obvious ones have to do with physical access — for instance, a broken elevator poses a literal barrier to a wheelchair user’s access to the second floor of a building — but it’s important to recognize that barriers take other shapes, too. They can present in the systems that govern everyday life — in an academic setting, timed tests in a classroom might prove difficult for someone with a learning disability or a student who can’t handwrite their answers easily. Attendance or sick-day policies in the workplace might be an obstacle for someone with chronic illness, whose daily function fluctuates. Organizational or institutional barriers may take the form of government or healthcare policies that display a lack of flexibility. And barriers can also be attitudinal, as in the stigma that surrounds disability or the discrimination that people with disabilities often face. Attitudinal barriers might come in the form of an ableist remark made by a stranger, or in more subtle forms, like a problematic portrayal of disability in a movie or TV show.
The social model doesn’t see disability as an inherently bad thing, and rejects the notion that people with disabilities need to be “cured” or “fixed.” Instead, disability becomes a neutral form of difference — absent of stigma — and a facet of diversity, in the same way that other markers of diversity, like race, sexual orientation or social class are.
In fact, many people with disabilities who embrace the social model view their disabilities as an additive identity, a positive trait which is an inextricable part of who they are. In this manner, the social model gives rise to the notion of disability pride and disability culture.
Words often associated with the social model:
Identity, pride, culture, diversity, societal barriers
Critiques of the social model
It can be reductive to think of the relationship between the social and medical models of disability as a binary. The complexity of disability — as a physical and psychological, social and cultural phenomenon — isn’t fully contained in either the social or medical model, and while the medical model is most commonly the object of critique from the disability community, the still-developing social model is not without its own flaws. Scholars have pointed out that the social model’s insistence on separating disability from impairment denies the lived experience of an individual’s impairment and the role it plays in their daily life. The social model has also been critiqued for its lack of intersectional voices.
Newer models of disability attempt to respond to these critiques. For example, the social-relational model recenters the role of impairment in an individual’s life, while proposing that disability is a product of relationships between impaired and non-impaired people and the social power dynamic that results.
Models of disability
Linton, S. (1998). Disability Studies/Not Disability Studies. Disability & Society, 13(4), 525-539.
Marks, D. (1997). Models of disability, Disability and Rehabilitation, 19:3, 85-91, DOI: 10.3109/09638289709166831
Shakespeare, T. (2006). The social model of disability. The disability studies reader, 2, 197-204.
Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) (1975). Fundamental Principles of Disability.
Social model critiques
Beaudry, J.-S. (2016). Beyond (Models of) Disability?. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 41. 210-228. 10.1093/jmp/jhv063.
Haegele, J.A. and Hodge, S. (2016) .Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models, Quest, 68:2, 193-206, DOI: 10.1080/00336297.2016.1143849
Owens, J. (2015), Exploring the critiques of the social model of disability: the transformative possibility of Arendt’s notion of power. Sociol Health Illn, 37: 385-403. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12199
Sauder, K. (2015, March 15). Reinterpreting the Social Model of Disability to be More Inclusive and Less Confusing [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://crippledscholar.com/2015/03/15/reinterpreting-the-social-model-of-disability-to-be-more-inclusive-and-less-confusing/
Shakespeare, T. and Watson, N. (1997). Defending the Social Model, Disability & Society, 12:2, 293-300, DOI: 10.1080/09687599727380
Terzi, L. (2004). The Social Model of Disability: A Philosophical Critique. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 21(2), 141-157. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24355191
Thomas, C. (2004). Rescuing a social relational understanding of disability. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 6(1), 22-36. doi:10.1080/15017410409512637