Discussing the medical and social model of disability

When it comes to discussing neurodiversity, something that is not mentioned a lot is the medical model and the social model. Both models have been used over time, but are very different to each other. In this blog post, I will summarise both of these models, and talk about how it influences the way we think about disability.

Note that the views in this blog are my own, and people may have different views to me. That is totally fine.

The medical model of disability says that people are disabled because of their specific condition that they have. This specific condition could be a neurodivergent condition such as ADHD, or a physical condition. However, the medical model suggests that for people with disabilities, the focus is on what is “wrong” with that person. Whether it is social challenges, or challenges when it comes to using a wheelchair, the prime focus is on the challenges that get faced due to a person’s disability, rather than their specific needs. Therefore, the medical model implies that disability is similar to an illness and that the way to deal with it is by curing it. This places negative connotations when it comes to the word “disability”.

The social model is very different from the medical model in that it focuses on the disabled persons needs rather than what is “wrong” with them. The social model states that for disabled people, their disability is considered as a difference, and that often the barrier to them overcoming the challenges that come with it is not due to the disability itself. Instead, the barrier to overcoming these challenges is due to society not being accommodating of the differences that people with disabilities may have. The social model implies that “disability” is not a bad thing, and that people with disabilities can overcome the challenges they face with the right support.

The best way to compare these two models is by giving examples. An easy example to think about is by considering a wheelchair user that wants to get in a building that has steps in the entrance. The wheelchair user cannot use those steps to get into the building. The medical model would focus on the fact that the person cannot get into the building because they are a wheelchair user, and therefore cannot use the steps. However, the social model would focus on the needs of the wheelchair user that would enable them to enter the building, for example by building a ramp or providing an alternative entrance. The medical and social model can also be applied in the workplace. The medical model would fail to see that disabled people may need reasonable adjustments in order to thrive in the workplace, and instead the neurotypical workplace is something that the disabled person should navigate on their own. The social model would imply that disabled people have every chance of navigating the workplace with the right support, and that reasonable adjustments should be provided.

The key thing to take away from the comparison between the medical and social model of disability is how we consider the term “disability”. It is fair to say that the term “disability” has generally been used more in a negative light than a positive light. I have found from my personal experience that people have been reluctant to refer to neurodivergent conditions as a disability due to the negative connotations attached to it. However, the negative connotations are due to the medical model referring to a given disability as something that is wrong with the person. The social model suggests that disability is not a bad thing, and the challenges that come with the disability is more the fault of society for not being accommodating of the differences. Reframing how we think about the term disability is important when it comes to thinking about neurodiversity and disability going forward.

I am on the autistic spectrum and my personal opinion is that whilst I heavily prefer the social model, I don’t think the social model is perfect and it should be used with a pinch of salt. Firstly, I don’t like the medical model as it effectively implies that having a disability is a disadvantage. This way of thinking can be very harmful and ruin the self esteem of a disabled person. The social model is a lot better in that it accounts for the fact that society plays a big part of the experiences of a disabled person. However, the main criticism I have with the social model is that the model implies that the challenges that disabled people face are due to society and not the disability itself. Whilst it is true that disabled people face challenges due to society not being accommodating, some of the challenges are due to the disability itself in a lot of cases. Being an autistic person, I feel that some of the challenges I face is due to my autism and independent of society. This is a subjective interpretation, but the social model of disability can sometimes overlook the fact that a lot of physical and neurodivergent conditions are genuinely disabilities in their own right, even if society were accommodating of them.

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4 thoughts on “Discussing the medical and social model of disability

  1. I really liked this breakdown. Thanks for sharing.

    I teach ESL, and have discussed the idea of “social constructs” with my students. I gave them some concepts and they had to give examples. One group had trouble with the prompt “disability”. A student said, “Medically it’s a real thing. You can prove the person doesn’t have the ability to do something.” While that’s true, I challenged her to consider that the term “disbility” requires a standard of ability in the first place. Then we were able to come up with an example based on the deaf community, and how within the community itself, there is a culture independent of hearing people and their standards or abilities. You always need context to define something. And if you’re not in a hearing context, it doesn’t necessarily feel like anything is different or wrong. The social model tries to give that kind of support, so that people are jconsiered as just different, not lesser.

    This was so long. If you did get through it, thanks for reading! 😀

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    1. Thanks for this comment! The social model considers disability as a difference, which is a good way of thinking about it, but not perfect at the same time. Thanks for reading!

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  2. Thank you for this. We (as a society) have a long way to go in terms of how we perceive disability. I especially like that you mentioned autism in relation to it. My grown son (20 years old) is autistic. The best way I could explain it to children when he was younger was that his brain was just a bit different from theirs. For those of us on the neurodivergent side of things, I just say our brains are wired differently. 🙂

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