Social Model of Disability: who, what and why

Disabled journalist and campaigner Fleur Perry explains what the Social Model of Disability is, where it originated from and why it’s as important today as it was when first used back in the 1970s. 

In the 1970s, disabled people had little legal protection, representation in government, or understanding within their community.

Almost 50 years on, we have the Equality Act 2010. We’ve elected disabled MPs into the House of Commons. And, although there are still barriers to full social inclusion, attitudes have changed and are continuing to change.

All of this is a result of decades of hard work by campaigners and allies. Ordinary disabled people sharing ideas and solving problems, writing letters and participating in peaceful protests.

Whenever I look back, I am amazed at how much I owe to those who came before me. The right to an education. To somewhere safe to live within my local community. To care that meets my needs, and the choice of how to manage that.

But, some are still wrongfully denied these rights. Peer-to-peer support, free legal advice, and campaigns driven by the experiences of disabled people who are struggling, continue to make a change and help every disabled person to access their rights.

What’s amazing is that a common thread links today’s trending topics to the groundbreaking ideas of the 1970s: the Social Model of Disability.

What is the Social Model of Disability?

The Social Model of Disability is the concept that disability results from the interaction between a person’s characteristics and their unsuitable environment – not their medical condition.

An environment filled with barriers will create a significant difference in experience for a large number of disabled people. Conversely, an inclusive environment will offer the minimum level of intrusion for the experiences of all but enable disabled people to live their lives equally.

To improve the experiences of disabled people, you don’t need to medically ‘fix’ everyone, but to think practically about what the goals are and removing environmental barriers.

Put simply, disability is the experience of being a square peg in a round-hole world. And the world is changeable.

Here are some examples:

1. Two shops sit side by side. One has steps to the entrance and the other has a level entrance. The first places an expectation on customers to climb steps while the other does not have this barrier built in.

The shop without steps is accessible to more customers. To any business owners reading this – portable ramps are £50, just buy a ramp. Or just don’t build steps.

2. Two bus companies invest in a new fleet of buses. One has audio-visual announcements while the other does not. The first bus company notes higher customer numbers and better customer satisfaction. Customers report that the new audio-visual announcements make it easier to keep track of where they are and to find the right stop.

The other bus company places an expectation for customers to remember the order of the stops and to keep an eye on the screen. This is irrespective of a person’s memory or vision, not to mention the likelihood of someone standing in the way.

To any bus companies reading this – invest in technology if you want happy customers who will keep coming back and paying your fares. Councils – if going green is part of your visionary, dynamic five-year plan, remember that more people use buses when they’re user-friendly.

3. Two companies are busy designing the same tech. One offers flexible working hours and working from home. The other has a fixed 9am to 5pm workday pattern.

The first is going to be able to recruit and retain employees who need to schedule their employment around their needs. This means it is able to hire based on qualifications and experience, as opposed to the ability to be Dolly Parton.

The first company also considers how customers might interact with their product and use it in conjunction with assistive technology, and builds their product with additional accessibility features. The second company builds it with a one-size-fits-all approach. The first company ultimately sells more, as its overall customer base is larger.

Companies – is the work pattern you’re recruiting for putting off skilled employees? Are you tailoring your product to work for your existing customer base, or do you want more customers?

You’ve probably used the Social Model of Disability

The social model says anyone, anywhere, can make stuff work better. By sharing experiences and pushing for practical change, direct and indirect discrimination can be reduced and inclusion can be increased.

“Why’s that like that? That doesn’t work.”

“Could we make it like this?”

“Let’s do it!”

If you’ve ever had that conversation, you’ve used the social model.

Does the Social Model of Disability exclude medical treatment?

No. The ‘medical model’ says it’s my fault I can’t climb stairs and I need to be repaired. Or, just shut up and wait quietly for a couple of decades until they figure out how to do that. The social model, on the other hand, asks if there’s a different way to achieve that goal and says it’s probably quicker to get in a lift.

The social model does not say that medical knowledge is useless, but it requires that medical treatment is based on what the patient feels is important for them. This could be pain management, advice on how to stay in the best health or assistance when something flares up.

Medical practice consistent with the social model looks something like this:

  1. You don’t get a lesser level of medical care as a result of the attitudes of medical professionals towards disabled people.
  2. Your other needs are met through reasonable adjustments. For example, large-print leaflets made available at your maternity appointments.
  3. Decisions on any options are entirely yours. A doctor or nurse can give you information on the pros and cons of treatment, but, where possible, you make the decision on what happens to your body without feeling pressured.
  4. Medical thinking stops at the doctor’s door. Medical professionals should not have control over where and how someone lives, who they live with or how they spend their time.
  5. Unnecessary or arduous procedures are not pushed on anyone.

A few years ago, I asked a physio for some exercises to strengthen my back. She gave me a full-body MOT, and gasped at my ankles, which are turned inwards from 25 plus years of using an electric wheelchair instead of standing.

“We need to do some surgery on those,” she gabbled. “I’ll make you a referral to…” I stopped her there and explained the dangers of unnecessary and painful surgery. Anaesthetic is risky for me and my ankles perform their only needed function of wearing high-heeled boots very well, thank you very much.

Your needs and values come first, not a professional’s idea of ‘normal’.

Criticisms of the Social Model of Disability

One of the great criticisms of the social model is that it doesn’t match up to the experiences of people with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, anxiety or depression. No, it may not be a solution to every situation all of the time. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything to offer.

How many times have we heard the same story of someone going to the GP, explaining their symptoms, and being sent away without being listened to? They go back again and again, and months or years later they finally get a diagnosis. After further months on a waiting list, they eventually get the support they were asking for in the first place.

Also, how many times have we overheard people describing others as:

  • “just lazy”
  • “putting it on”
  • “attention seeking”
  • “needs to snap out of it”?

Social model thinking classes these issues – people’s attitudes – as barriers too, obstacles that can be removed. If people were listened to and able to access the appropriate support quickly, then this would be a significant step forward.

If public understanding were to be improved, then people wouldn’t end up spending time explaining the basics over and over, confronting stigma and trying to remove the existing attitudinal barrier.

A brief history of the Social Model of Disability

The starting point for the social model was the publication of The Fundamental Principles of Disability by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) in 1976.

It stated that: “In our view, it is society that 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” (UPIAS, 1976). You can read the rest by visiting the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation’s website.

Through decades of collaboration, research, and lobbying, calls for change gained traction. Protests, political battles, and a growing body of evidence put more and more pressure on the government to act. The UK’s first anti-discrimination legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, finally hit the statute books.

Though not an all-encompassing solution to every discriminatory action, for the first time there was a way to get justice when something went wrong.

Disabled people suddenly had rights, in education, in employment, in day-to-day life.

My generation grew up with an answer for everything, knowing: “You can’t do that because the law says” and asking; “can’t you just make a reasonable adjustment, please?”

Despite its flaws and gaps, there’s no doubt that this had a lasting impact on the way disabled people have interacted with the rest of society.

Wind forward a decade and a half and we have the Equality Act 2010. The duty to make adjustments is explained in more detail in this act. Indirect discrimination (“I didn’t mean it”) is dealt with. The Public Sector Equality Duty appears, which says that public authorities must have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality, and to tackle prejudice.

Yes, not only is discrimination no longer allowed, but now every taxpayer-funded organisation is duty-bound to help squash it out entirely.

This has not, we can say with some certainty, made inequality a distant memory. In 2016, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability reviewed evidence from hundreds of individuals and organisations and found many areas where major change is still needed.

Housing, transport, public buildings and services, restaurants, shops, and access to legal aid are all areas that need work. But work is happening.

Identifying the issues is always the first step in resolving them. Here, in the Equality Act, we have a pretty clear vision of what the world could be like and how disabled people could live battling future barriers.

Small local groups and larger, more established disabled people’s organisations are continuously monitoring, writing, surveying and challenging the big and the small to follow the law. People are individually and collectively taking the power of the law into their own hands, and winning.

Underpinning all of this is the idea that these are solvable problems, and that we deserve to live in the most inclusive world we can create. We owe that entirely to the social model and those who created and shared it.

Mike Oliver: advocate for the Social Model of Disability

In March, one of the strongest advocates of the social model and Britain’s first Professor of Disability Studies passed away at the age of 74. Mike Oliver, we salute you.

Re-reading some of Mike’s work today, there’s a sense of humour in his work, but veering toward dark sarcasm. He is unbowing, irreverent and always mocking with effortless sophistication.

His words always have a powerful hidden message  – we are good enough as we are.

His not-so-hidden message is that the rest of society can either learn to accept us as part of our shared world or get their judging expectations out of our faces.

Non-disabled researchers whose work had little practical value and failed to take disabled people’s own views or research into consideration were shown little mercy. Instead, honest first-person accounts of his own experiences and those of others were held up as examples of what barriers existed.

He truly showed what effect these barriers had on disabled people and society as a whole, and how a little creative thinking can go a long way.

Control is a key theme throughout his work.

  • Does a disabled person make decisions about their own life, health, path or future freely?
  • Do barriers, expectations and media representations get in the way?
  • Are we pushed to behave a certain way?
  • Why do we think the way we do?
  • What could we achieve if we were free of all the ideas that tell us we can’t because we do not fit the world?
  • What if the world could fit us?

What I would say to Mike Oliver, right now, if I could, is thank you.

Thank you for giving us the problem-solving tool that is the social model. Thank you for my education, my home, my career options, for everything.

Thank you for the lens offered in your writings that can give a new perspective to every reader’s experiences.

Visit the Universities of Leeds’ website, the Centre for Disability Studies, to find out more about the Social Model of Disability and Mike Oliver’s work.

By Fleur Perry

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One Comment

  1. I just love this article – I am reasonably new to living with a disability and have only just started reading about the Social Model of Disability but never really understood it until now- absolutely fascinating and I thank you Fleur and DH.

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