Understanding Disability: Part 4 – The Charity Model


This is part 4 in a 6-part blog series by Nim Ralph aimed at helping you to understand Disability.

In the previous blogs, I introduced the idea that how we understand Disability is ever-changing and that at different points in time there have been different models of Disability which have shaped both who is classified as Disabled and what language is deemed socially-acceptable.

We have already discussed the Eugenics and Medical Models. I explained how the concept of eugenics laid the foundations of how we understand disability in the modern world and how this evolved into the Medical Model, which shapes the way that many social institutions respond to and support disabled people.

In this blog, I will focus on an offshoot of the Medical Model called the Charity Model – it is a model based primarily in attitudes, but also profoundly affects the way money and resources are used in approaching disability.

Quick Summary

The Charity Model is an offshoot of the Medical Model. The base logic is informed by the Medical Model, but expanded into a view of Disability as tragic and pitiable.

According to the Charity Model, a person has a disability. This disability is a ‘problem’ in their body and good citizens should feel pity for the disabled person’s tragedy, or inspired by a disabled person’s achievements.

Charity Model language, like Medical Model language, includes terms like normal, abnormal, the disabled, the blind, person with disabilities, able-bodied, handicapped, suffering from, special needs, needs, and wheelchair-bound.


The Charity Model idea


Medical Model Offshoot

The Charity Model is an offshoot of the Medical Model. It is based on the understanding that disability is something in the body that can and should be cured. It is complementary to, and in many ways the moralistic extension of, the Medical Model.

The Charity Model has been developed by non-disabled people and it’s both a way of understanding and relating to disability, as well as an industry around disability. Where the Medical Model sees medical professionals as experts in disability, the Charity Model sees non-disabled people as the saviours of disability. Disability is not only something that should be cured, but something that is tragic.

It therefore creates a view of disabled people’s lives as tragic and pitiable.

Expanding on Eugenics

The Charity Model is also underlined by the constructs of the Eugenics Model, where categories of fit and unfit were constructed to justify growing inequality in the industrialised world.

The Charity Model requires that those with more resource should help those without. While we don’t use the same definitions of fit and unfit anymore, the Charity Model bestows those who would have fallen within the label “fit” with a moral duty to help those who are “unfit”.

To understand why this matters we must reflect back on what we learnt about the reasons that the Eugenics Model became popular; it was developed alongside growing inequality in the newly industrialised, capitalist world. It was a theory that allowed elites to justify their wealth, both morally and scientifically, while witnessing the expansion of poverty, inequality and their social impacts.

Industrialised capitalism is an inherently hierarchical system, a triangle with the workforce at the bottom and a few people at the top. The capitalist idea is that when wealth and wellbeing improve, it improves for the whole triangle. That is, the people at the top get richer, but so too does the material wellbeing of the people at the base. However, inequality is inherent as there must be more people at the base of the triangle than at the top – a necessary evil for capitalists.

So, why is this relevant to the Charity Model? Because to challenge inequality in its entirety would involve people at the tip of the triangle redistributing all wealth to the base – not compatible with the capitalist system, so categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ are constructed to justify to whom wealth gets redistributed.

Deserving vs Undeserving

It follows on from Eugenics which categorised people into fit and unfit in order to morally justify who was at the bottom of the triangle to the people at the top, benefitting from the horrors of the workhouse, the mines and, most disturbingly, the transatlantic slave trade. Over time as moral values have developed to condemn slavery and exploitative labour, we have instead invented new ways to moralise why some groups of people are treated as they are.

That said, social mobility exists. It is possible to be Black, disabled, LGBTQ+, woman and at the top of the triangle, but your chances of being at the bottom are significantly higher if you are from one or more of those identities.

Of those groups, disabled people are seen as deserving because disability is viewed as synonymous with tragedy. This means there is no perception of choice in why a disabled person might find themselves at the bottom of the triangle, unlike other social categories who are seen as having some choice in their own impoverishment. The reason disabled people aren’t seen as responsible for themselves is the belief that disabled people, as a group, do not have the ability to climb to the top of the pyramid.

So where eugenics determined that people should be at the bottom because of who they are, we are now concerned with whether people deserve to be at the bottom because of who they are. Disabled people therefore become deserving and other “unfit” people: criminalised people, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, working class people, are all categorised as undeserving.

But that’s good for disabled people right?

It would be logical to conclude that it’s a positive thing for disabled people to be considered deserving and that we should unite around supporting other groups of people to be seen as deserving too.

However, the underlying basis of why disabled people are perceived as deserving is that disability is seen as a tragedy. Disabled people, therefore, deserve pity and support.

Here we see where the Medical Model pursuit of cure and the Eugenics Model construct of “unfit” collide.

If disability is tragedy, then disabled people are tragic. Disabled people’s lives in the Charity Model are rarely seen as positive or fully-rounded; but as something to struggle against. It is the duty of non-disabled people to help disabled people, as part of their civic and moral obligations.

The Medical Model construction of need is relevant here: disabled people are seen as needing help from non-disabled people in order to live fulfilling lives, and ultimately to find cures to disability.

Inspiration Porn

Okay, so we shouldn’t pity disabled people. We should be inspired by them, right?

Pity in this sense can be contrasted with “inspiration porn”. Inspiration Porn is a term coined by Disability activist Stella Young to name the way that disabled people who achieve things are seen as inspirational. Achievement is seen as inspirational because disabled people aren’t expected to make achievements, and certainly not without non-disabled people’s help.

The usual images associated with Inspiration Porn are of visibly disabled people making physical achievements like climbing a mountain or running a race. Phrases like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” are simultaneously used to sanction disabled people who don’t outperform non-disabled people, and to inspire non-disabled people to be better.

TV show “The Undateables” is a prime example of Inspiration Porn. It is a show which follows the stories of disabled people dating and trying to find love. Its marketing is based on showing pictures of visibly disabled people with the giant title “The Undateables” written across them. The subtext is; if these people can find love against the odds, there’s hope for everyone.

While people who have taken part have done so with agency and their stories are often handled with humanity and care, the core messaging in the marketing is still that in their stories inspiration can be found. It also supports the idea that disabled people need non-disabled help to succeed – the implication is that participants in the show couldn’t find love until Channel 4 kindly intervened and match-made for them.

This false binary of tragedy versus inspiration is at the heart of the Charity Model. Both are actually in service of non-disabled people, allowing them to:
• feel bad for disabled people’s limited life chances and choose to help them – thereby making them “good people”
• be inspired by disabled people and realise how much more potential they have as someone who doesn’t face the same limitations

Inspiration porn also highlights the problem with “able-bodied” as a term – imagery of visibly disabled people making physical achievements demonstrate that disabled people are, at least sometimes, able-bodied. That their body is able to achieve certain things doesn’t mean they are not disabled.

Charity as an action

So far I’ve explained the Charity Model as a mode of thinking, but you might be wondering how it links to charity as an industry. To be clear, the Charity Model is not dependent on the existence of charities – but it does heavily inform many charities, especially ones focussed on disability.

The Charity Model is concerned with seeing disability as tragic and in need of support. The model isn’t about supporting disabled people to live our lives on our own terms; it’s not concerned with civil rights, independent living, meaningful employment or equal access to education.

There are a number of charities for disabled people constructed on this basis. Led by non-disabled people to help disabled people live better lives or find cures. This is a problem as it not only means that services aren’t shaped by people who truly understand the needs of disabled people, but they also offer no role-modelling or alternative narratives for disabled people.

Often Charity Model charities fundraise through imagery and messaging that shows disabled people as helpless and tragic – to generate emotive responses from non-disabled people who will hopefully feel enough pity to put their hands in their pocket – Children in Need is a clear example of this as a fundraising drive for disabled, poor and/or disenfranchised children.

AJ Withers points out in their brilliant book Disability Politics and Theory that children are often used as the imagery for Charity Model fundraising efforts. This is because underlying the messaging is that fundraising gives hope, mostly hope of cure. With children, cure could lead to making them productive workers, whereas disabled adults are still seen as unproductive workers (regardless of whether they work or not).

So the Charity Model recreates Medical Model thinking of disability being in the body, and extends it to create a moral impetus for non-disabled people to advance charity towards disabled people. This model still underpins much mainstream thinking and behaviours towards Disabled people today.

What’s Next?

In the 1970s and 80s, disabled people started responding to what they perceived was disempowering and infantilising attitudes towards them born of the Medical Model, and continued in the Charity Model. They started to develop and advocate for a new way of thinking: the Social Model.

This shifted the way we conceptualise disability from in the body to thinking of it as constructed by society. The idea of the Social Model underpins all of Drake Music’s work.

This will be the focus of the next part in the blog series, or you can hear a very quick explanation of it on our new Drake Music podcast.

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