The Social Model of Disability ‘v’ The Medical Model

Hospital Corridor

I read an interesting article by Jarrod Marrinon on the Ramp Up website recently.  Jarrod discusses the ‘social model of disability’ and says that it is time to “leave the medical model of disability in the doctor’s room”. 

The timing of the article (17 June 2014) couldn’t have been any more coincidental as I was finalizing the draft of my book on evacuation considerations for people with disability and was tweaking up this section at the time.

I thought I’d share this extract of my book discussing the social model of disability prior to the official release in the next couple of days.

Evacuation of People with Disability and Emergent Limitations:

Considerations for Safer Buildings and Efficient Evacuations

Section 1.9 The Social Model of Disability

There has always been a tendency within society to ‘dis-enable’ people with disability.

Throughout history, people with disability have been ignored, hidden and cursed. When made visible, they have been subjects of exhibitions and objects of ridicule. Society have been ‘dealing’ with the ‘problem’ of people with disability by placing them in institutions or prisons and by sterilising women and girls as an acceptable treatment (1)

Fortunately times have changed dramatically and the human rights and disability rights movements have made significant grounds particularly within the last 40 years. However there is still the potential for people to be ‘dis-enabled’ by their work environment, rather than by their own abilities. The first reference to this phenomena was discussed in a 1975 publication ‘Fundamental Principles of Disability’ which argued that the “problems faced by disabled people were caused by society’s failure to take account of their needs, not by their impairments” (2). The Northern Officer Group (3), based in Sheffield in the United Kingdom commented on this issue in their 1993 paper and gave the example of an architect who uses a wheelchair. In the example the architect is not restricted from her ability to work due to her physical impairment or because she uses a wheelchair, but rather being unable to perform as an architect due to the workplace having no access or egress provisions to meet her needs. Another example provided considers a deaf worker who is not in danger during an emergency because she is deaf, but because her colleagues do not understand or have not acknowledged her needs.

According to the social model of disability (4, 5), ‘disability’ is socially constructed. In contrast, the ‘medical model’ views ‘disability’ as a problem of the person, directly caused by a disease, trauma, or other health problem, which needs to be dealt with by medical professionals. People with disability are seen “in need of being fixed or cured” under the ‘medical model’ viewpoint. This presents a negative approach with people with disability to be looked upon as charity cases and to be pitied. In contrast, the social model sees ‘disability’ as:

The result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.

 People with Disability Australia believe this model:

  • Is now the internationally accepted way to view and address ‘disability’, consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • Seeks to change society in order to “accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society”.
  • Supports the view that people with disability have a right to participle on an equal basis with others.
  • Presents impairment as a medical condition that leads to disability.
  • Presents disability as the result of the interaction between people living with impairments, and the barriers in the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment.


  1. People with Disability Australia 2014, History of Disability Rights Movement in Australia, viewed 23 May 2014,<>
  2. The Guardian 2011, Vic Finkelstein obituary, viewed 23 May 2014, <>
  3. The Northern Officer Group 1993, Personal Emergency Egress Plans, The Northern Officer Group, Wakefield, UK, pp. 3, 12-15, 20
  4. People with Disability Australia 2014, The Social Model of Disability, viewed 21 April 2014, <>
  5. World Health Organisation 2001, International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health: ICF, World Health Organisation 2001, pp. 6, 20