The true nature of human beings is most of the time perceived as inherently weak, vulnerable, flawed and imperfect. However, throughout history, some shifts in thinking formed the notion of dominance in society, rooting from the concept of power and privilege and at the same time in parallel to perfection and capability. This widespread way of thinking came about as a social norm and brought humankind into a state where we recognise vulnerability in any circumstances, a condition that separates an individual from normalcy and difference is not valued. Consequently, individuals with disability, may it be physical or hidden, are marginalised. A dangerous illusion about the meaning of normality is observed as the result of transference of vulnerability and consequent dependency into disabled people.
The social model aims to change this plane of thought by claiming that the term disability as a social construct – much like the philosophical topic of sex and race that concerns the classification of people on the basis of observed or inferred characteristics – rather than a biological construct. It is a term coined by society to inflict exclusion within the mainstream of society as a result of physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers which prevent equality of opportunity in education, employment, housing, transport, leisure, etc. Repossessing the social model of disability means searching for openings in the structures of society where we might effectively contribute with others in the restructuring of society so that it is neither competitive nor disabling for all people.
3.1 The Medical Model of Disability vs The Social Model of Disability
The first model of disability was the medical model of disability, regarding the functional analysis of the body as machine to be fixed in order to conform with normative values. According to the medical model of disability, disability is seen as a tragedy and a problem of the individual who is in need to be pitied. Disabled individuals are thought to be different to ‘what is normal’ or simply abnormal and these impairments or differences must be fixed or cured by medical professionals even when they do not subject to pain or illness. The medical model of disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be. Here, disability was defined as an individual problem – as what is wrong with that person, not what the person needs – and it was up to that individual to adapt to their circumstance. It creates low expectations and leads to people losing independence, choice and control in their own lives.
In contrast, the social model of disability does not place the blame on neither impairments nor illness, not even the individuals submitted to those impairments and illness. The social model deem society the main contributory factor (purposely or inadvertently) for systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion in disabling people. This model wants people to understand that they were not at fault: society was. They did not need to change: society needed to change. They did not have to be sorry for themselves when they are not able to actively contribute or participate in the society: they could be angry. The social model promotes the idea of access by removing unnecessary barriers to create inclusion and equal opportunities in every citizen for participating in society, accessing work and living independently. As an illustration, a town would be designed with mainstream transport and infrastructure made accessible for everyone, disabled children are educated in accessible mainstream schools alongside non-disabled children, education provision is accessible to all with the same qualifications – opportunities open to all who wish to access – and products around the home are designed with accessibility in mind so that specialist products are not required.
The social model of disability also focuses on people’s attitudes towards disability and recognises that attitudes towards disability can present barriers for disabled people in the same way the physical environment can. These attitudes are many and varied, ranging from prejudice and stereotyping, to unnecessary inflexible organisational practices and procedures and seeing disabled people as objects of pity/charity. Society needs to understand that people with disability are not objects of charity, medical treatment and social protection but subjects with rights, capable of claiming those rights, able to make decisions for their own lives based on their free and informed consent and be active members of the community.
Psychologically, the social model gained popularity, approval and most importantly, people’s commitment based on the way it had transformed their self-esteem. Any activist in a collective group united by the social model ideology had a deep investment in the social model definition of disability. Some pointed out that the model made people view the world in black and white, even if it was not the initial intention of why the model was introduced. They see it as ‘We’ were oppressed: ‘they’ were oppressors. ‘We’ talk about disability, we do not mention impairment.
Some suggested that there is an inconsistency: the rhetoric says one thing but the others behave in a completely different way in private; sometimes talking about ‘disability’ when in strictly social model terms they talked about impairment. Jenny Morris did this by blurring the lines between impairment and disability in her book Pride Against the Prejudiced. Colin Barnes wrote in 1998 “… ‘disability’ is both biological condition and a social construct, and the terms ‘disabled people’ and ‘people with disabilities’ are used interchangeably. As Mike Oliver has repeatedly made clear, this is about far more than simply ‘political correctness’. It’s about the crucial issue of causality, the role of language, its normalising tendencies and the politicisation of the process of definition.”
There is a social relational nature of impairment and illness. Some people may have an illness long before they receive a diagnosis which may then constitute impairment, and others may be impaired but receive a diagnosis of illness long afterwards. C. Thomas wrote in 2001 that impairment may also become disability through the experience of “structural oppression; cultural stereotypes, attitudes, bureaucratic hierarchies, market mechanisms, and all that is dependent to how society is structured and organised.” There is currently no mechanism within the social model of disability that accounts for the variety of ways disability may be experienced.
From the feminists’ perspective, Liz Crow criticised the failure of the model to incorporate the personal experience of pain and limitation which is often a part of impairment. In 1993, Sally French wrote about the reasons for resistance to these alternative perspectives: “It is no doubt the case that activists who have worked tirelessly within the disability movement for many years have found it necessary to present disability in a straightforward, uncomplicated manner in order to convince a very sceptical world that disability can be reduced or eliminated by changing society, rather than by attempting to change disabled people themselves…”.
Hannah Arendt’s conception of power may provide the bridge between impairment and disability. It may also offer disability studies a model of theorising disability that accounts for difference without privileging impairment or disability. She believes that “Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keep together” and defines plurality both as “equality and distinction in that we are all separate individuals, this sameness in difference allows for elaboration of the complexities, contradictions and common aspects of disabled people’s experiences”, instead of incorporating them into one collective understanding that excludes aspects of each person’s experience. Arendt argues that not all disabled people experience oppression, and calls for pathways of oppression operating at both the public and personal level.
It has to be noted, however, that these views oversimplify a complex reality and each item should be seen as the polar end of a continuum. A social model perspective does not deny the reality of impairment nor its impact on the individual. However, it does challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected condition of human diversity. What the social model mainly highlights is that it seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others. Bryan Turner suggests that “bodies change over time, and function differently within fluctuating social spaces; an interactional process that constitutes the ‘whole'”. Arguing against separating the body and society he proposes societal understanding and appreciation of the embodied individual, showing a clear distinction between the social model and the medical model.
If we move the focus away from its materialistic underpinnings and use the social model, we have a more productive and communicative position from which to argue. The social model recognises that disability affects every aspect of our lives, not just our health. It shows the need for disability to be addressed at every level: social, economic and political. It must become the first key consideration when drafting plans and making decisions.
The social model of disability has demonstrated success for disabled people in society, challenging discrimination and marginalisation, linking civil rights and political activism; enabling disabled people to claim their rightful place in society. The model outlined an affirmation model of disability, which seeks to celebrate the difference that characterise the lives of disabled people. It is therefore contended that disabled people can be proud of the fact that they are different from the majority of the population. Escaping the underlying social oppressive practices and structures that characterise some societies brings liberation from the responsibilities in the realms of sexual relations, responsibility within the domestic household, and may bring them more attuned to comprehend the oppression encountered by other minority groups.
The model demonstrates that it is possible for disabled people to inculcate and project a positive identity, thereby celebrating the diversity and richness of the lives that they invariably lead but only with collective action through solidarity and consensus in our society.