henry-co-X-e2UGY2g-w-unsplash (1).jpg

The social model of disability helps to show society's shortcomings and where reasonable accommodations must be made. 

Disability can be thought of in many ways. Everyone has their own opinion on what it means to be disabled, whether or not they themselves are disabled. But no matter what one’s opinion may be it’ll either fall under the medical or social model of disability.

The medical model views disability as something that’s wrong with the person. It implies that the person who has the disease, injury or defect is suffering and that they need to be “treated” or “cured.” This way of thinking about disability often leads to the belief that the disabled person is less than others and can’t live a successful life with this “problem.”

According to We Can Do Better, the medical model has been critiqued for making impairment the most important aspect of a person. The meaning of this model is very deterministic and could be part of the reason why young disabled people have a harder time getting the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Finally, the medical model views disability from the perspective of being able-bodied. 

For example, a person who has 20/20 vision can read a restaurant menu that has small print. According to the medical model, the blind or visually impaired person is considered helpless or disabled in this situation, but if they underwent eye surgery, then they’d be “fixed” and could read the menu.

The social model of disability states that the person is only disabled because of how society operates. All people are unique in some way, whether it’s in their mannerisms, eyesight, hearing, mobility or other personal factors. Some people happen to be born with these challenges, and some people accumulate them during their life. At the end of the day, everyone’s circumstances are different, and the disabled community is one anyone can join during their lifetime. 

The social model suggests that as a society, we don’t value disabled people as people who contribute to the populace, and this model suggests that the disabled community shouldn’t be pitied or made into a charity case. I suggest that society can and should continue to improve by providing resourceful ways for this community of people to live their lives. 

Using the restaurant menu example again, the social model would suggest that the restaurant provide a large print and Braille menu combination so that both blind and visually impaired people can use it. The social model has been criticized for not recognizing the fact that some impairments can actually affect a person’s life in a negative way that a change in society can’t fix. Take people who have organ failure as an example, the only way to handle the failure is by undergoing treatment. But even though the solution to improving the person’s life involves the medical model of disability, that doesn’t mean that the person should be locked away. They can and should still participate in life.

As a disabled woman, I have always leaned more toward the social model. I have Colobomas, which is a fancy way of saying I have gaps in my vision. There isn’t surgery or a “cure” for this condition, and that’s fine with me. I have gotten to try the extracurricular activities that I’ve wanted to, I’ve traveled; obviously, I go to a big school and I live independently. 

I was raised to believe that I can do pretty much whatever a fully sighted person can do. In saying this, I know that I can’t do everything, such as driving a car or performing brain surgery. I prefer the social model over the medical model because even though life is more challenging, I have found ways to succeed. For example, I keep my apartment very organized, and I use a magnifier app on my phone to read anything in small print. 

I see the medical model’s value for people who need some sort of transplant to live or for some other impairment that affects the person’s ability to live a healthier life. But for myself and for other people who are disabled in ways that can be helped by society, I lean more toward the social model because I think it aids in a person’s ability to live a happy, independent life where they’re a valued member of society.

Caroline O’Toole is a senior SMAD major. Contact Caroline at otool2ce@dukes.jmu.edu.