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The Social Model of Disability



Have you ever taken a moment to consider how other people perceive disability? In this We’ll explore multiple perspectives of disability that challenge the status quo. Some of these may come as a surprise to you! This is because a lot of the information we receive in our daily lives disability an individual problem, a health problem to be dealt with by medical professionals; misfortune for people and their families and something we need to fix. Can we do better?



What is a ‘model’?

When we talk about a ‘model’, what we’re really saying is a way of conceptualising something; of viewing it, talking about, working with it and how it is represented in our thinking.


The Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of disability might be An unfamiliar concept to you. This model defines disability as being an issue with society, rather than the individual person. It characterises disability as the result of an interaction between people living with impairment, or difference and being limited by social barriers.

When we talk about social barriers, what we mean is physical environments, attitudes and organisations:




The environment around us has lots of physical areas that are inaccessible to people who use the space differently than the majority of people. It isn’t always designed to suit difference. One example of this is stairs which might be challenging for people who aren’t able to ‘walk’ in the traditional sense. Another example might be language; signs can’t be read by those who are blind or have sight issues, telephones can’t be used to communicate for those who have hearing, speech or language impairments.



In an Australian context, similarly to other places in the world, we are taught that difference is something to be feared, pitied, changed or fixed. This perception can result in prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination. Social prejudices are often unconscious decisions so often these things occur without us even realising. Whilst the social model doesn’t deny the fact that physical impairments do exist and can impact people, it suggests that we should challenge our internal attitudes and accommodate people who are different to ourselves.



Organisations including workplaces, schools, and all forms of media impede on the lives of people with disability. By developing policies, procedures and standards centred upon people who do not have a disability or difference, or by  promoting stereotypical portrayals of persons with a disability. These and other barriers contribute to the ongoing maintence of a society that excludes people with disability.


By using the Social Model of Disability we can all work together to shift structural factors to improve equity for people with disabilities. In doing so, we work collectively to flip the issue on its head and recognise that the problem is in fact the design of the stairs rather than the people using the staircase.