Social Model of Disability History

Social Model of Disability - History

Bill Albert, Disability Knowledge & Research

“In the broadest sense, the social model of disability is about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment – whether physical, sensory or intellectual.” Mike Oliver

Social model of disability 

The critique of the traditional interpretation of disability, which eventually was transformed into the social model of disability, was developed from the 1970s within the disability movement in the UK. It offered a radical alternative to the individualized medical conception of disability by asserting that disabled people were disadvantaged not because of their impairments, but as a result of the limitations imposed on them by social, cultural, economic, and environmental barriers. Disability according to this formulation is not about health or pathology but about discrimination and social exclusion. From a social-model perspective disability is a socio-political issue. This in turn leads to fundamentally different policy priorities and choices, mainly around the removal of disabling barriers, as well as a strong emphasis on human and civil rights. 

Unlike medical model assumptions of individual abnormality and the primacy of cure, the social model, while not rejecting medical intervention, implicitly acknowledges the normality of impairment. Furthermore, it is recognized that medical advances far from reducing the number of disabled people have led to an increase, as people not only live longer but are also better able to survive illness and injury. It might be said that the proportion of disabled people in a population is a good indicator of an economy’s prosperity.

Fierce academic and political debates continue, both within the disability movement and from outside, about the nature of the social model, its relevance, as well as how and if it can be applied in any given situation.3 It is beyond the scope of this note even to outline these debates. Instead, after a brief account of some benefits of applying the social model in development, specific questions that have been raised about the social model in this context will be considered.

Nothing about us without us

By projecting disabled people into a leading role in defining and controlling their lives, the social model offers a powerful device for the liberation of those who remain the poorest of the poor in all countries, both developed and developing. The model is so powerful because it illuminates the fact that the roots of poverty and powerlessness do not to reside in biology but in society. The former is, for most disabled people, immutable; the latter, through purposeful collective action, can be transformed. A human rights approach offers both the platform for such societal transformation and a way for disabled people to transform their sense of who they are – from stigmatized objects of care to valued subjects of their own lives. For people who are poor and oppressed this is a key starting point of any meaningful process of social and economic development.

Ignoring impairment 

Perhaps the most common issue raised by critics of the social model is that it ignores the reality of what impairment means for disabled people. This, they say, is problematic in the North, but when applied to the South it is catastrophic. At one level this claim could be dismissed as it is most frequently made by non-disabled people, while the social model has been embraced by disabled people, in both the North and South, who clearly do know what impairment means on a daily basis. 

But more to the point, advocating the social model does not mean ignoring the causes of impairment or the health care needs of anyone, including disabled people. Proper health care is a basic human right and provision of clean water, disease prevention, ending conflicts, eradicating poverty, and getting rid of landmines, all of which would remove major causes of illness and injury, are important for all. Finally, it should be stressed that the social model critique of the medical model of disability is, at least in part, about rejecting the lexicalization of disabled people, not rejecting medical intervention.

Ignoring difference

It has been claimed that the social model of disability ignores the differences among disabled people with respect to their impairments, and that there is an impairment, class and gender hierarchy (wheelchair-using, middle-class men being dominant) within the disability movement.

Leaving aside the latter point, which is factually incorrect, the criticism about a lack of homogeneity is rather curious as no one has ever made such an argument or even implied that differences do not exist or are not significant. Individually, disabled people, even those with the same impairment, have a vast range of life experiences, as do any other oppressed group such as women or ethnic minorities. What brings them together in a movement is the shared experience of discrimination and exclusion. This is precisely the focus given by the social model and one reason that it has been so important for, and embraced so avidly by, disabled people.


The social model of disability represents a protean challenge to traditional thinking about disability. If applied in the development context it has the potential to transform policies and practice as well as the lives of disabled people. However, neither it nor a human rights approach are magic wands. While many people may find the social model a helpful way to conceptualize disability and have even begun using disability rights language in reports and policy documents, this is not enough to make a real difference. A too-easy acceptance of the new disability paradigm may even be counterproductive: by being so easy it runs the risk of ignoring how negative assumptions and attitudes about disability (held by both disabled and non-disabled people) are so deeply ingrained and continually reinforced. 

Furthermore, understanding the strength and social authority of these attitudes demands a genuine awareness of the unequal power relationships that define the reality of disability. This applies equally to gender and ethnicity. For example, you cannot challenge sexism and racism in a ‘white man’s world’ by using non-sexist, non-racist language while accepting the power relationships in that world. Until this problem is addressed and the insidious layers of institutionalized disablism are exposed and stripped away it will be impossible to develop and implement effective policies to address the poverty and disadvantage so endemic among the hundreds of millions of disabled people in the developing world. 

Bill Albert, Disability and Knowledge  

Resource Book

 Ending Disability Discrimination: Strategies for Social Workers (Paperback)

by Gary May (Author), Martha Raske (Author)