'It changed the way I perceived myself.'

The Social Model of Disability

By Robyn Olivia

When you see the word disability, what do you think of? What image appears in your head?

I will take a guess. I may be completely wrong, but normally it is someone you would see as “helpless.”

If that is what comes to your mind – that’s ok – however, please keep reading because I’d like to share with you some information about the Social Model of disability – a model that truly changed the way I perceived myself as a disabled woman and other people with disabilities. I hope it may do the same for you.

Let’s start with the definitions.

Disability is defined in the dictionary as, “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” When we talk about disability, we normally talk about it from a medical perspective – meaning that we talk about how the condition affects the individual and what is wrong and how that limits them. The word disability is problematic in itself and has negative connotations. The word suggests that anyone with a disability is lacking in ability. Combine this with the language used to describe those with disabilities (“helpless”, “heroic”, “wheel-chair bound”, “living with…”) we find that, maybe without meaning to, this language and the medical view of disability is aiding the stereotypes. Instead of acknowledging that they are, “a person with a disability,” our language and the medical view confines them to the sole experience of being a disabled person suggesting, ultimately, the fault for their limited access lies with them.

To give you an example, when I was 18, I went for an open day. On seeing that there was a ballet element to the course I was interested in, I thought – oh shit – when I point my toes on my right foot, it doesn’t exactly do that… I looked at my mum, I knew she was thinking the same. However, as optimists, we approached a member of staff. I explained that I have mild right sided cerebral palsy and certain elements of ballet could be a problem. I asked what support there could be for someone with a disability. In short, she said that if I couldn’t do ballet due to my condition, maybe this course wasn’t for me.

Now, the medical view of disability agrees with this view. As a woman with cerebral palsy, I would not be able to access this course due to my condition being the problem. Therefore, a career in this area was probably not possible.

If you speak to any person with a disability, you will hear very similar stories.

“Sorry but due to your disability, you can’t go to a mainstream school.”

“Due to your disability, you will never be able to ride a bike.”

“Due to you being in a wheelchair, you can’t get on this public transport.”

I could go on, but hopefully you see the pattern forming. The blame is placed on the individuals’ medical condition.  

The social model of disability, however, suggests that the term disability defines disabled people in a way that is broad, vague and often inaccurate to the ability and potential of those labelled. It reinforces that it is not an issue of dis- ability but instead, that society is disabling those same people due to the inaccessibility of the culture in which disability has evolved.

As we have already mentioned, language and social attitudes form clear cut definitions. It leads to stereotyping those with disabilities and it is this language and these attitudes that disables them from accessing society.  And what about environment? What if I told you that 55% of all London’s train stations do not have step free access and that nationwide 40% of stations in England are also inaccessible to those with a physical disability. Can you see that in these situations, a wheelchair user is dis-abled from accessing these train stations? A lack of accessible buildings, services, captioning and interpreters create barriers for the individual to participate in mainstream society.  They are being dis-abled by the inaccessibility of the world around them.

Einstein once said, “everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Disabled people are so often judged and held to the standards of a society that is completely inaccessible for them. It is important for us to learn, together, what the social model of disability is. This model doesn’t “blame” the individual or turn them into the problem. It is an equal opportunities model that allows everyone to collaboratively identify and solve problems surrounding accessibility. It brings disabled people into the conversation. Most importantly, it acknowledges the rights of those with disabilities to have full participation in their society. This model allowed me to see and recognise that my disability was not the problem.

How you can help? How can you be an ally to those with disabilities? It all starts with education and language.

  • Try not to use words like heroic or brave or to sensationalise our daily experiences – we are not an inspiration just because we woke up and got dressed. Sharing videos like “girl asks disabled boy to prom – isn’t she great,” can be really hurtful and damaging too.
  • Don’t be afraid of the word disabled or disabled people. I remember sitting in my wheelchair when I was younger and I was either ignored, stared at like an extra head might pop out on my shoulders, or people would ask my mum, pushing my wheelchair “how is she?” – believing that because I was sat in a wheelchair, I was unable to talk. Talk to us and listen to us.
  • Don’t assume you know what disability looks like. There is a wide range of disabilities that exist: not all are visible, and each individual has their own experience of their disability, so respect that and listen to what we have to say.
  • Advocate for disability rights, lift our voices and help make change in your communities to improve access and representation. Together, through education, we can raise awareness and start changing the way society views those with disabilities.