The models of disability

3 minutes
Publication :
April 2024

The models of disability define how we see and respond to disability. It's important to know about them so we can question our own approach. For instance, when meeting a Disabled person, what do you think you have to do? And where does that belief come from? Your approach follows a model, perhaps unknowingly, and this model guides your decisions.

The popularity of these models has changed over time, reflecting shifts in society. For instance, the moral model of disability dates back to the beginning of the Common Era. It viewed disability as a fault caused by moral sins. While less prevalent today, we can still see traces of this model in our language, culture, and beliefs. Some still perceive disability as "God's will".

Today, there are four key models of disability, as outlined by the UN Refugee Agency.

  1. The charity model is the oldest one in place. It separates Disabled people from the rest of society to be taken care of. It also suggests they are unable to make their own decisions.
  2. The medical model views disability as a problem arising from a medical condition. People with disabilities often feel excluded and undervalued under this model. It also influences decisions on whether someone should receive financial benefits.
  3. The social model is quite different. It perceives disability as the result of an environment that excludes certain individuals. This model focuses on removing barriers to ensure everyone has equal opportunities.
  4. The rights-based model sees Disabled people as having rights they can use to dismantle inaccessible systems. It also recognises that the state and society have responsibilities towards them.

There are many more models, some still in existence, and I encourage you to learn about them. Some contradict each other, while others can coexist. The aim is not to determine which one is best, although I have an opinion and you probably do too. Regardless of our certainty that we're on the right side today, society will change. And our perception of disability is likely to evolve too.

The tips and resources I'm sharing in this article are influenced by the social and rights-based models. Feel free to explore other resources and forge your own opinion of course.

Tips from the social model of disability

Listen to what Disabled people have to say

We often hear doctors talking about disability, more than we hear Disabled people. Why is that? What's your immediate thought? Make time to ask Disabled people for input when designing your products. They are users like everyone else. Even better, hire them. They can offer valuable insights that your non-disabled colleagues might overlook. This approach is key to creating products that include everyone. And it works for all marginalised communities.

Avoid inspiration porn

Disability representation often swings between photos of miserable people and their inspirational counterpart. When we focus on the bravery of Disabled people, we can unintentionally glorify their everyday activities. And because we do it through the lens of disability only, it's not a compliment. It can be guilt-inducing for those who can't achieve such feats and suggests that overcoming disability is about willpower. The point is not whethere a wheelchair user managed to climb stairs. They shouldn't have to. We should talk about the reason there was no ramp in the first place. So if you want to celebrate Disabled people, ask them how it makes them feel. It shouldn't be about their disability only. Stella Young's TED talk addresses the subject better than I ever could, so please take a look at her short video.

Consider intersectionality

Just like everyone else, Disabled people have different opinions. One person's opinion doesn't represent the entire Disabled community. There are many types of disabilities, some visible and others invisible. Everyone's experience is different. Factors like social background, religion, culture, gender, and sexuality all influence our perspectives. A disabled black woman faces challenges that a white Disabled man doesn't know. So when you talk with Disabled people, make sure you have a diverse panel to learn from. This is the principle of intersectionality as explained by Haben Girma.