What is disability?

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What is disability?
There are a number of ‘models’ of disability in academic literature. The two most often mentioned are:
The Medical model: this view sees disability as a ‘problem’ belonging to the individual affected. E.g. if a wheelchair user had difficulty getting up steps, the problem is seen as to do with the individual’s wheelchair not the steps.
The Social model: this view claims that disability is in some sense a social construction. It is society that ‘disables’ an individual. In the example, the steps are a disabling barrier; they can be changed/adapted to enable the individual to have access.
The Medical Model of disability rests on biomedical knowledge. It sees disability as primarily about an individual’s physiology, and aims to cure or lessen the impact of the disability, mainly with medical interventions.
The focus on this model is on curing or managing disabled bodies. It sees them as impaired & needing correction/cure. They are ‘deviant’ from the norm. (Ref: Baggott (2004)
It assumes justice is achieved through allocating enough resources to curing/managing disabled bodies; to enable living more ‘normal’ lives/having a better ‘quality of life’.
The Social Model of disability came from disabled people themselves. It claims that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by an individual’s impairment or difference.
The focus on this model is on removing the barriers that hinder and restrict the life choices of disabled individuals.
It assumes justice is achieved through removing systemic barriers, negative attitudes & exclusionary practices towards disabled people in society.
In 1975 the UK Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) said:
“In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated & excluded from full participation in society.”
Ref: UPIAS (1975), Fundamental Principles of Disability
ALSO: 1983 Mike Oliver (disabled academic) coined the phrase ‘social model of disability’. There are ongoing academic & activist debates.
Disability & Equality
Disability rights: the struggle for equality
Disability activists have used the slogan:
“Nothing about Us without Us”
What does this mean? It’s saying that no policy should be decided without the full & direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy.
Ref: Charlton, J. (1998), Nothing about Us without Us, University of California Press
The Social Model of disability argues for changes in society at the level of the environment, social attitudes, law & policy It claims that trying to ‘fix’ or cure individuals is discriminatory, devalues individuals, & can result in unjust harms to disabled individuals, including mental health harms, e.g. :
Harm to self-esteem
Harm to self-confidence
Harm to autonomy
Sense of disempowerment
Law & Policy
UK Disability Discrimination Act, 1995 – mainly understands disability on the Medical Model.
This has been repealed & amalgamated into the UK Equality Act, 2010
(Except in NI, where DDA still currently applies).
This Act requires the state to protect & actively promote disability equality, e.g. employers providing ‘reasonable adjustments’. But there remains an element of the Medical Model in law & policy, e.g. disabled individuals are defined in terms of limitations & abnormalities.
Activists today continue to campaign for disability rights
 Discussion in Pairs
Consider both models – medical & social. In your view, what are the advantages and disadvantages of both models?

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