SPECTRUM’s Philosophies: 2: What is The Social Model of Disability?

Disability-Training-pic-1

In this, the second of two main articles, SPECTRUM talks about its guiding philosophies – they dictate not just what we do, how we do it, but MOST IMPORTANTLY WHY WE DO IT

The two central philosophies are:

  • Independent Living
  • The Social Model of Disability

SPECTRUM was one of the organisations that helped define these philosophies. 30-40 years on, these terms are still widely misunderstood. In this the first of two articles, we’ll explain what we mean by these terms, and why they are so important to Disabled People around the world.

Our previous article discussed what Independent Living is and why it is so important to us. This article is about the Social Model of Disability.

More and more Disabled People are talking about the Social Model of Disability.

For many, understanding it has changed their lives. SPECTRUM sees it as its guiding philosophy, but it is still widely misunderstood. This article aims to explain the Social Model of Disability in non-academic terms.

The document serves as an introduction to these concepts. They are usually explored in more detail on Disability Equality training courses and Personal Development courses (available from SPECTRUM and many other organisations run and controlled by Disabled People). These courses enable Disabled People to relate the principles of the Social Model and Equality to their own life.

The Social Model of Disability has changed many people’s outlook on life – and it could change yours. If, after reading this, you would like to talk to people whose lives have been dramatically enhanced as a result of understanding and applying the Social Model, please contact SPECTRUM (info@spectrumcil.co.uk)

A different way of looking at ourselves

The Social Model of Disability enables Disabled People to look at themselves in a more positive way which increases self-esteem and independence.

Disabled People often feel a loss, for all the things they would like to do, but feel they cannot do; a loss of goals and dreams that seem unobtainable. Disabled People often feel they are a burden on family and friends, and a problem for doctors who cannot cure them.

This traditional view of disability is called “the Medical Model of Disability”, because it sees people as a medical problem. As a result, Disabled People are expected to see their impairment as their problem, something they will have to make the best of and accept that there are many things they simply cannot do (and cannot expect to be able to do).

It ignores how ‘bad’ a person’s impairment is. Instead it establishes that everyone should be considered equal and demonstrates that it is society that has negative attitudes about Disabled People, and it is society which erects ‘barriers’ that prevent Disabled People from participating and restricts their opportunities. Society is therefore said to ‘disable’ them.

How does the Social Model of Disability work?

The social model looks beyond a person’s impairment at all the relevant factors that affect their ability to be a full and equal participant in society.

What else is relevant?

The Social Model of Disability shows that it is barriers that disable people, not their impairments. For instance: heavy doors and inaccessible public transport are two examples of what makes travelling such a hassle – not the fact that someone has an impairment.

Every Disabled Person can make their own list of the barriers that limit their participation. When these barriers and other people’s negative attitudes are considered, it is easy to see how Disabled People’s opportunities are limited by a multitude of barriers.

The Social Model of Disability states that the solution is to remove these barriers, rather than the alternative Medical Model of Disability which relies for a solution on curing all people who have impairments. (Which in many cases is not possible, desirable or socially acceptable).

For a practical example, many people living with reduced eyesight are given a simple piece of equipment – a pair of glasses. Without them they would be excluded from full participation in society and would therefore be disabled by it.

Similarly, the social model solution to the fact that a wheelchair user is disabled because they cannot use public transport is simple – make public transport accessible to everyone, by way of ramps and high visibility guide rails!

table one

This Social Model of Disability approach to disability, which sees the problem as society’s barriers and attitudes, rather than the person’s impairment, allows Disabled People to lift the ‘blame’ from their shoulders and place it squarely onto society’s.

The Social Model of Disability empowers Disabled People to challenge society to remove the barriers that disable them.

table 2

It was Disabled People themselves who defined the Social Model of Disability. (See history section on the following page). They defined disability as:

 “the disadvantage or restriction caused by a society which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and excludes them from mainstream activity.”

The Social Model of Disability defines the words “Impairment” and “Disability” differently, as follows:

Impairment: Lacking part or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.

Disability: The disadvantage of restriction or activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from participation of in the mainstream of social activities. Disability is therefore a particular form of social oppression.

While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disabling outcomes or barriers unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

As a result of understanding the Social Model of Disability, many Disabled People now understand that it is society’s reaction to their impairment that is disabling, not the impairment itself.

A fundamental aspect of the Social Model of Disability concerns equality. The struggle for equality is often compared to the struggles of other socially marginalised groups. Equal rights give empowerment and the “ability” to make decisions and the opportunity to live life to the fullest.

The Social Model of Disability focuses on changes required in society. EG:

  • Attitudes, for example a more positive attitude towards Disabled People, or not underestimating the potential quality of life of those with impairments,
  • Social support, for example help dealing with barriers; resources, aids or positive discrimination to overcome them, for example providing a buddy to explain work culture for an employee with autism,
  • Information, for example using suitable formats (e.g. Braille) or plain English or coverage (e.g. explaining issues others may take for granted),
  • Physical structures, for example buildings with sloped access and lifts, or contrasting colour schemes to aid visually impaired people,
  • Flexible work hours for people with sleep disorders or, for example, for people who experience anxiety/panic attacks in rush hour traffic.

wheelchair stairs

A Brief history of the Social Model of Disability

In 1975, the UK organisation Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) claimed: “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.”

In 1983, the disabled academic Mike Oliver coined the phrase “Social Model of Disability”. It was subsequently extended to include those with learning difficulties, people with emotional, mental health or behavioural difficulties, and others.

Further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_model_of_disability

Socio-Political+Models+of+Disability

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