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Understanding disability through the Social Model of Disability
By Sarah | Updated Oct 11, 2019 at 12:04 EAT
Understanding disability

Over the years, researchers have identified barriers in disability and the role of social and physical barriers

The shift from associating disability medically to socially where people are now viewed disabled not by their bodies but by the society in which they live in

Disability forms part of a man’s condition. At one point or the other, almost everyone will be impaired temporarily or permanently. It is a multiplex, progressive, contested, and a subject that is adopting several approaches.

Over the years, researchers have identified barriers in disability and the role of social and physical barriers. The shift from associating disability medically to socially where people are now viewed disabled not by their bodies but by the society in which they live in[i].

The CRPD accepts that disability is still evolving and puts stress that it results from an interaction between attitudinal, environmental, and persons with physical challenges hindering their effective and full participation on an equal basis with the rest[ii].


No one is excluded from the potential of being disabled. An infant can be born with blindness; a kid can become paralyzed while playing, an adult from drug abuse develops depression, a woman can be diagnosed with sclerosis, a middle-aged man can develop diabetes, and an older adult with glaucoma can lose vision. Therefore, disability is not an illness, just as illnesses can vary, so too, it can lead to lesser or greater limitations in carrying out activities.


The social model of disability


This shows that disability is majorly caused by how society views the disabled rather than a person’s difference or impairment. This seeks to address ways in which barriers can be removed to avoid life restriction for the disabled. When these barriers are removed, they can live an independent life with control and choice over their own lives. The social model affirms that barriers are not only physical but attitudes in a society based on stereotypes (disablism) and prejudice, which also disable individuals from having equal life opportunities.

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The social model of disability: some common examples

I. An individual using a wheelchair wants to go to a building with just a step at the entrance. A social model solution would be adding a ramp or elevator so the individual can access the building freely. In a medical model, only a few expensive solutions can help in such a case, which at the end bars the choices and control they have and exclude them from essential life activities[iii].

II. An individual with a learning difficulty wishes to live independently from their own home but is not sure how to raise money for basic needs like rent and food. A social model solution would be to support them so that they are able to pay rent and live in their own homes. A medical model would work with having the individual live in a communal home without fully exploring his/her potential.

III. A kid with visual impairment wants to be able to read and chat with their friends about a book. In the medical model, there are few solutions to this, but in a social model; audio recordings are availed with the first publication of the book, ensuring the child also joins in on an equal basis with others.

What is the Environment? How does it impact the extent of disability?

Environmental factors go beyond information and physical access. Service delivery systems and policies, including rules in service provision, are obstacles[iv]. An individual’s environment has a great impact on the extent and experience of disability. Inaccessible environments are a disability themselves because they create barriers in inclusion and participation. These can include a deaf person in a meeting without an interpreter, a wheelchair user in a building without ramps, an accessible washroom or elevator, or a visually impaired individual using a computer without screen reading software.

Inequality is a major cause of poor health and disability as the WHO commission on Social Determinants of Health argues[v]. The environment can be changed to help prevent impairments, improve health conditions, and hence better outcomes for the disabled. These environmental factors include safe water and sanitation, poverty, nutrition, climate, working conditions, and access to health care. These changes can be made by adopting sustainable legislative policies, capacity building, and even technological developments.

Prevention of Disability

Since no one is excluded from having a disability, specific preventive measures can be undertaken to prevent occurrence.


I. Primary prevention – A specific protection or health promotion action is taken to remove or minimize the chances of a health problem from a population or individual before it shows up. i.e HIV Education[vi].

II. Secondary prevention – Detection of a health problem is done to facilitate a cure, prevent spread, and its long term effects. i.e., Supporting women to access breast cancer screening[vii].

III. Tertiary prevention–An action is taken to reduce the impacts of established disease by reducing opportunistic infections and restoring functions — i.e. rehab for kids with musculoskeletal impairment[viii].


Conclusively, responses to disability have undergone a radical change in recent decades: the role of environmental barriers and discrimination in contributing to poverty and exclusion is now well understood, and the CRPD outlines the measures needed to remove barriers and promote participation. With disability as a development issue, it is going to be difficult to improve lives in the world when avoiding the needs of people living with disabilities.

The main goal of the CRPD is aimed at ensuring people living with disabilities enjoy life’s opportunities and choices that are currently available to a minority through eliminating prejudice and discrimination and also minimizing impacts of physical impairment.


Written by Sarah Kagoya Kinamdali

Disability Consultant

M.A Int’l Studies UoN

BCom Finance K.U




[i] Oliver M. The politics of disablement. Basingstoke, Macmillan and St Martin’s Press, 1990


[ii] http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/rights/convtexte.htm6 December 2006


[iii] http://www.disabilitynottinghamshire.org.uk/about/social-model-vs-medical-model-of-disability/

[iv] Miller P, Parker S, Gillinson S. Disablism: how to tackle the last prejudice. London, Demos, 2004


[v] Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2008


[vi] Maart S, Jelsma J. The sexual behaviour of physically disabled adolescents. Disability and Rehabilitation, 2010,32:438-443. doi:10.3109/09638280902846368 PMID:20113191


[vii] McIlfatrick S, Taggart L, Truesdale-Kennedy M. Supporting women with intellectual disabilities to access breast cancer screening: a healthcare professional perspective. European Journal of Cancer Care, 2011,20:412-20. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2354.2010.01221.x PMID:20825462


[viii] Atijosan O et al. The orthopaedic needs of children in Rwanda: results from a national survey and orthopaedic service implications. Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, 2009,29:948-951. PMID:19934715

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