The Two Models of Disability

Jens Lelie via Unsplash

By Tiana Sixsmith, MSA Disabilities and Carers Office-Bearer

This piece was first published in Lot’s Wife Edition 5, 2021.


Historically, being disabled was built on the assumption that two things needed to happen – a cure needed to be developed and somebody was required to manage your entire life. For some disabled people, this has meant years of inhumane treatment and testing, stigma, and institutionalisation in the name of medical science. 

However, emerging in the 1980s came a disability-led revolution around the concept of understanding and treating disability and disabled people. Growing from a recognition of systemic societal barriers and a call for greater independence, the Social Model of Disability was developed. 

The Medical Model of Disability 

According to this model, a disability is something that needs fixing by a medical professional. It is born from the idea that a disability is ‘abnormal’ and focuses on what a disabled person can and can’t do. Ultimately, this model treats disability as a problem and supports the ongoing stigma around being disabled. This model has often failed to support the individual rights and independence of disabled people, instead of recognising disabled people as individuals who are able to make decisions about their own lives and be active members of society. 

The Social Model of Disability 

Built up from the advocacy of disabled people, this model gives voice to the idea that individuals are not disabled due to their impairments or diagnoses, rather they are disabled due to global inaccessibility. It focuses on the barriers that prevent disabled people from actively participating in society, and advocates for them to be removed. 

As an example, let’s consider a case study. A person is visually impaired and having difficulty participating in a university class. The social model would suggest that it isn’t the individual’s disability affecting their ability to partake, rather it is the inaccessibility of the class. The model would call on the university and unit coordinator to develop solutions to prevent these barriers for impacting the individual, i.e providing audio of unit content, providing documents in alternative formats or considering the colour contrast of provided materials. 

How can you actively promote the Social Model of Disability? 

Understanding what these models mean is one thing, but knowing how to implement the Social Model in your everyday life is integral to being a strong ally. 

If you’re developing events or communications, do so with disabled people in mind. Whilst it’s great to say ‘everyone is welcome here’ on your Facebook event pages, it’s important to actively implement that by considering who may be accessing your event and how you ensure it’s possible. 

Similarly – actively consider what barriers may exist in your community or workplace, and what actions you can take to support adjustments. Does your workplace have very rigid work hours? Is the lift in your apartment building always broken? Has someone posted a video on Facebook and it doesn’t have captions? These are all examples of ways that society can be inaccessible – so try and support having them changed. 

Finally, instead of feeling sorry for disabled people and asking what you can do to help – consider how you can instead uplift the voices of disabled people. We don’t want you to feel pity for us, we want you to consider us in decision-making and listen to what we have to say. Support disabled leadership, buy from disabled artists and creators, read and listen to disabled advocates. 


Youth Disability Advocacy Services, Two Models of disability

People with Disability Australia, Social Model of Disability 

Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Social Model of Disability


Tags : Disability
Lot's Wife Editors

The author Lot's Wife Editors

Leave a Response