Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Social Model of Disability

There are several reasons why I wanted to write about The Social Model. One is that very shortly we’re going to announce a Blogging Against Disablism day and The Social Model does clear up some cross-Atlantic confusion about the language we use around disability. Also because various reading and discussions have been making me think about what it means to be disabled. I tried to do something like this yesterday, when I was less awake. I was so unawake that rather than thinking better of it, removing it and putting it to one side, I managed to delete everything I had written. Woops.

The Social Model of Disability is a way of understanding what disability is, as opposed to what it ought to be, or the way it should be approached. However, The Social Model does lead to various conclusions about the way forward. First of all, let’s start with a bit from The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebhur;

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

You’ll see why in a minute.

In the past, disability was seen as an entirely biological or physical phenomenon. The difference between me and a non-disabled person is that I have various things medically wrong with me. Indeed, many disabled Americans describe medical conditions as disabilities as in Cerebral palsy is my disability. And quite sensibly, given the usage, they use people-first-language, describing themselves as people with disabilities as opposed to disabled people in the same way they would describe themselves as people with cerebral palsy rather than cerebral palsy people.

In the UK, since the 1970s, disabled people have begun to acknowledge that the obstacles in their lives are not exclusively to do with some biological quirk or condition. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. Thus we differentiate between impairment (our particular set of cognitive, physical or psychological limitations) and disability, which encompasses the social, political, attitudinal and practical obstacles which limit our opportunities.

Impairment is a fact of life. Although many of us would very much welcome some medical advance to remove or alleviate our situation, most people who self-identify as disabled anticipate having their impairments for the rest of their lives.

However, disability is movable. Rather like gender, disability using this definition, is a largely cultural construct, which varies in perception and meaning between cultures and projects certain roles and expectations upon those people who are perceived as being not as they should be.

A necessary example. My condition results in pain which limits the distance I can walk. Before I got a wheelchair, I couldn’t leave the house. Before I got an electric wheelchair, I couldn’t leave the house alone. Before adjustments were made, ramps put in and doorways widened, there were various buildings which I couldn’t get into and certain personal errands which I could not run myself.

Thus, my experience of disability has very greatly decreased over time, despite no significant improvement in my health. When it comes to wheelchair-use and other mobility impairments, it is relatively easy to notice practical steps which can remove unnecessary disadvantage for disabled people. With other sorts of impairments, it gets more far complicated.

The Social Model does not suggest that all the disadvantages experienced by disabled people come from society. There are many disadvantages I experience which nobody can do anything about; I am not employable, in the conventional sense, and there is no number of ramps, flexible hours and positive attitudes which can help with that one. Similarly, disabled people do not demand that lifts be put into medieval castles or that National Parks be flattened or that businesses go bust trying to make adjustments.

However, the implications of the Social Model go far far deeper than the familiar issues of physical access and equal opportunities in employment. Whilst impairment can happen in an instant, the experience of living with impairments in a disabling society is as complex and dynamic as belonging in any other marginalised group. For example, dissecting the causes of low socio-economic status among disabled people is at least as complicated as dissecting why Black Americans are far more likely to experience poverty than White Americans. It isn’t just to do with whether a firm is prepared to hire us for any given position, but it is a range of subtle restricting factors which exist in all areas of social and political experience from media representation and political rhetoric, through health care systems and education, to families and peer-groups and the individual themselves.

I think the mention of the individual is very important, because we are part of society; both products of a disabling society and participants in it. I resisted both my manual and electric wheelchairs because I was depressed by the implications (implications which quickly faded into insignificance when I finally gave in). We are also capable of perpetuating disablism against one another; people with physical impairments can be derisory about those with cognitive, learning or mental health impairments and vice versa. It is not as if we are a group of blameless unfortunates waiting for the world to get better for us.

But applying the Social Model means that the world can get better. If disability is understood as a purely medical phenomenon then our position must remain the same, and the only strategy must be to attempt to normalise ourselves as much as possible, to accept manmade boundaries and prejudices as natural and somehow come to terms with the tragedy of such an existence.

The Social Model means we can look at our lives, and decide for ourselves what is and is not possible and demand the right to fulfil our real potential as opposed to the low expectations we may have had dumped on us.

Do let me know if that makes sense, as it is something I am so familiar with, it would be easy to write it down and make some serious error.

After I wrote this I remembered a few words the great Lady B said on the subject.


Anonymous said...

Difference between the Social and Medical Models:

The medical model is all too often used to say: "You can't do that because..."

The social model says: "You can/could do that if...."

midwesterntransport said...

I don't have anything to add at the moment - just wanted to say you really made me think today.


midwesterntransport said...

...with this post.


BloggingMone said...

Great post. I think the biggest problem is that almost only people with disabilities know about the difference between a social and a medical model and that impairment/disability discussion. I don't know a bout GB, but at least in Germany that is definitly the case. It is very much "disability scene talk"
There has to be more public awareness (in a positive sense, I mean!!) about impairments and the resulting disabling living conditions. I can't recall how many times when I said that I am a sign language interpreter someone got up and said his brother-in-law is also working for the blind and whether I can "interpret" Braille (usually referred to as "that little dots these people can read"). Honestly...what can anyone expect if this is still the norm?

Anonymous said...


I found your blog by chance because I was looking for info on the impairment/disability discussion.

I got myself into a bit of a tangle with the fact that one of the local council's feel that people do not have disabilities they have "impairments".

I dont know if I am reading to much into this but in my mind a impairment is a fault, its damaged.

I always took the social model to mean that disabled meant more than just a disability - it impacted on every area of one's life. I never remember reading anything about it saying so call em impaired?! and all will be well, then they will be just like us, individuals.

I am all for being a indivdual as I have never realy belived in the possiblity of being able to make my life equal to others - but I dont really want to be seen as a impaired indvidual.

Am I seeing this all wrong?

I really love your blog, may I add a link to mine?

Anonymous said...

It's good to see this topic discussed. I just linked to this post in the Further Reading section of today's entry at the Rolling Rains Report.

Anonymous said...

Cheers for the insight...really makes you think.