Understanding Disability: Part 5 – The Social Model


This is Part 5 of our Understanding Disability series by Nim Ralph. We have so far learned about the historical models which have affected our understanding of disability today. Some of those models (especially the Medical Model) still widely affect people’s understanding of disability today.

At Drake Music we work with the Social Model and this informs every part of our practice. The Social Model is very much a live, debated and discussed way of thinking, so join in and be part of the conversation.

Quick Summary

A person is disabled by society’s placing of barriers to different types of access in all facets of civil and social life through attitudes, the physical environment and institutional norms.

Social model language: disabled person, inclusion, enabled, impairments, access requirements, Disabled.

If the medical model positioned being disabled as in opposition to being abled, the social model puts it in opposition to being enabled. In other words non-disabled people are enabled by society and those with impairments are disabled by society.

The Social Model Idea


The Social Model was borne of a disability rights movement, led by Disabled people, in the UK. It contested the medical model, arguing that it confuses disability with impairment – a person is disabled by society, they may have an impairment, but they don’t have a disability.

In other words, the social model posits that rather than disability being located as something wrong inside an individual’s body, someone having a disability, people are actually disabled by society and the ableist structures and systems therein. People have impairments, but it is barriers to accessing the world that disable them; they are disabled people.

What do we mean by impairment?

An impairment is defined as a difference in a person’s physical, mental or sensory function when compared to the socially determined norm.

What, then, is disability?

Disability is created by having barriers put in your way to accessing the world by society. These barriers might be

  • Attitudinal: such as schools not thinking that disabled students can engage in music, or not believing the staff have the skills or resources to properly engage the students
  • Physical: For example, a wheelchair user might not be able to gain access to a building because of a lack of ramps, wheelchair width doorways or accessible toilets haven’t been adapted or built
  • Organisational: such as inflexible policies or practices within organisations that prevent disabled people accessing their services or employment

In this way the social model moves away from the idea of “a disability” as something to be fixed or cured, instead it pushes for political and social change, an acceptance of diversity of people and a willingness to meet people’s access requirements – breaking down the barriers that currently disable access.

One common impairment which is enabled by society is eye sight. People who don’t see with 20:20 vision are understood to have an impairment and might require an aid to make life easier for them. We don’t consider people without 20:20 vision disabled and people with 20:20 vision aren’t seen as able in comparison. Rather, glasses and contact lenses are a common and widely available aid that enable access to the world. Although an impairment might exist, people with and without it are enabled to access the world around them easily and equally.

The shift away from seeing disability as a problem in the body also moves the focus from curing or fixing disabled people to, instead, accepting a diversity of bodies and meeting different people’s access requirements.

The language has also shifted from “needs” to “requirements”, moving away from the charity or pity model. Disabled people don’t need from non-disabled people, but rather have requirements which enable our participation in civic and social life.

This move away from the idea of need also impacts the medical model’s creation of the role of specialists and specialist support for disabled people.

Social Model activists pushed and continue to push back against this thinking through the practice of inclusion.


Inclusion is the social model in action; rather than creating specialist services for disabled people based on the idea that we can’t access mainstream services because of needs that require specialist knowledge or support, inclusion is the practice of breaking down disabling barriers in society so that all people become enabled to access services and social life.

Because people are disabled by society, so to can society enable all people. Practical movements, such as the Universal Design movement seek to provide alternative models to a society that build ableism into its fabric.

Further, the social model purports that you don’t need to know what a person’s impairment is – this medicalises them – but instead, you need to know what their access requirements are. So rather than asking “in which ways are you disabled” or “what disability, medical condition or impairment do you have” we should instead be asking “do you have any requirements to help you access this event/space/service…”

Social model activists argue that these barriers exist because of political reasons. The construction of disability in modern history via the theory and practice of eugenics took popular hold because it helped to both create and justify a global, industrial capitalist economy.

A Political definition

In such a system, people’s value was assigned based on how well they could contribute to the economy and/or what role in production they could or should take. The implicit social hierarchy and inequality embedded in the success of industrial capitalism needed moral justification to appease the guilt of the successful and limit the social imagination of the oppressed.

We see this in the way eugenicist philosophy was applied to African peoples as a justification for their systematic dehumanisation in all aspects of the transatlantic slave trade. The same system valued bodies that could labour at a speed and standard that generated most profit through production; thereby value was placed on non-disabled people as resources that could generate profit, and disabled people were seen as a resource drain on society.

It’s important to remember that under the Eugenics Model people were categorised as fit or unfit; disabled people were designated unfit as were LGBTQ+ people who wouldn’t reproduce and thereby create new workers, women who were ‘promiscuous’ or disobeyed authority, and ‘criminals’ who posed a threat to capitalist order.

This political reading of society helped forge the Disability Rights Movement and led to its inception as a political movement, as well as the creation of disabled identity.

Many Disability activists spell Disability with a capital ‘D’ to emphasis the political nature of the identity.

The Social Model is somewhat mainstreamed in the UK. While the biggest piece of Disability specific legislation; the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the consequent Equality Act 2010 use the Medical Model as a definition of disability, employment law tends to use the social model.

You can still see traces of the Eugenics and Medical model throughout all elements of civic and social life in the UK; housing, education, healthcare, recreation and attitudes. However, more and more we see the social model woven in too.

It’s worth noting that most countries across the world, including the US and across Europe, still use the Medical Model as their most central understanding of Disability, and that here in the UK there are still many battles to be fought before the Social Model is the dominant model.

This journey to modern day Disability politics helps us to understand the philosophies behind the language we use around disability, and what is currently understood as “best” language in the mainstream.

The Debate

It’s important to note however, that disabled people themselves might use non-social model language for a many number of reasons. This might be because they believe in a different model for themselves, which they have the right to do. It might also be because they see flaws in the social model or it might be that they don’t have access to or interest in the political landscape of disability – that someone is disabled doesn’t mean that they want to read and discuss disability politics all the time!

In fact, “person first” or “identity first” is a debate that is always live between disabled people, and is shaped by factors such as culture, experience and political identity.

It might also be because they are reclaiming words, concerned with perceived limitations of the social model and/or subscribing to a new model of disability such as the Radical Model… which we will discuss in the last blog of the series, coming soon.

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