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Social Model of Disability

Audri Sandoval Gomez and Aja McKee

This module aligns with the following DSE tenets:

  • contextualizes disability within political and social

  • privileges the interest, agendas, and voices of people labeled with disability/disabled people

  • promotes social justice, equitable and inclusive educational opportunities, and full and meaningful access to all aspects of society for people labeled with disability/disabled people

  • assumes competence and reject deficit models of disability

In the 1960’s individuals with disabilities started to demand civil rights. The disability movement advocated for disability to be framed in a manner where disability was understood in how barriers affect an individual’s equal rights, which was defined as the social model of disability. In 1975, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) stated: 

In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society.

This statement would be the start of a momentum towards viewing disability in an entirely different light, which would be considered the social model of disability. The social model “distinguishes between the impairments that people have, and the oppression which they experience. And most importantly, it defines ‘disability’ as the social oppression, not the form of impairment" (Shakespeare, 2002, p. 4). 




How does this cartoon reflect the social model thinking?

What other barriers do students with physical disabilities experience in an educational setting and how do these barriers emotionally or physically affect them?

Essential Questions

1.    How has the social model of disability created disability awareness?
2.    How has the social model created equal measures for people with disabilities?
3.    How can social model thinking be integrated in the educational system?

•    Understand how society disables physically impaired people.
•    Identify how the social model differs from the medical model of disability.
•    Understand the difference between impairment and disability.

The social model of disability was a reactive and progressive approach to the medical model. Oliver (2004), who coined the term social model of disability in 1983, argues that the social model is a “practical tool, not a theory, an idea, or a concept” (p.30). The social model focused on anti-discrimination legislation, equality, and a focus on changing negative attitudes towards disability. Furthermore, Hughes (2010) stated The social model of disability suggests that the things that stop or hinder someone from doing something are the barriers that society has put in place or chosen to ignore. It is therefore society that disables a person, not their impairment (p.X). 

Through the social model, disability is considered secondary to the individual. Instead the individual’s strengths, aspirations, and needs are primary to the disability. The social model focuses on barriers and structure that affect the individual because of their disability. These barriers can hinder an individual’s ability to obtain equal access than someone without a disability. For example, a wheelchair user may not have access to a building if there is no ramp, therefore, making the building inaccessible to the individual. 

The social model of disability brings about a dichotomous understanding. One being that the social model is autonomous from the medical model of disability. Secondly, disability is distinguished from impairment in the following manner:

  1. Impairment (physical limitation)- a long-term characteristic of an individual that affects the body, mind, or senses (Hughes, 2010, p. 4). 

  2. Disability (social exclusion)- is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. (Disabled People's International, 1982).

Valle and Connor (2011) demonstrate the difference between impairment and disability:
A wheelchair user may have an impairment that requires moving through the world in a way other than walking; however, should the wheelchair user wishes to enter a building that is accessible only to people who walk, she is now disabled by the context. In this way, disability can be understood as a social construction.











Lastly, the social model thinking has key implications within the educational system. Negative attitudes, discrimination, and barriers have negatively affected students with disabilities in schools. Prejudices towards children with disabilities have affected their full participation in educationally related activities. The social model thinking calls for equal opportunities and pushes for schools and educators to eliminate barriers, intolerance, and provide necessary resources for all children with disabilities.

Social Model of Disability

  • Social Model Animation (YouTube link

    • Closed Caption available (CC)



The social model ideology relies on changes from the current “medical model” thinking. In the medical model, disability is a deficiency or abnormality; yet the social model views disability as just a difference, like gender or race. It calls for change and equality for people with disabilities. It calls for changes within the educational system as well as in society. The social model of disability challenges society to view disability in a manner other than an individual’s abnormality and a problem unique to that person. Lastly, the social model challenges a change of negative attitude towards disability, equality for all people with disabilities that no longer limit services or opportunities for individuals.


  • Disabled People’s International. (1982) Proceedings of the First World Congress, Singapore: Disabled People's International.

  • Hughes, R. (2010). The social model of disability. British Journal of Healthcare Assistants, 4(10), 508-511.

  • Oliver, M. (2004) The social model in action: If I had a hammer, in C.Barnes and G.Mercer (eds) Implementing the social model of disability: Theory and research, The Disability Press.

  • Shakespeare, T., & Watson, N. (2002). The social model of disability: An outdated ideology? Research in Social Science and Disability, (2), 1-34. 

  • Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation. (1975). Fundamental principles of disability. Retrieved December 20, 2010, from

  • Valle, J. W., & Connor, D. J. (2011). Rethinking Disability: A disability studies approach to inclusive practices. New York: NY McGraw-Hill

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