Hi, I'm trying to understand the practical difference between the social and medical model. — Scope | Disability forum
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Hi, I'm trying to understand the practical difference between the social and medical model.

Jon2 Community member Posts: 2 Listener
Hi community, 

I'm an abled person (not sure if that's the right term to use?) trying to be moral, and in the course of my investigations into social issues of equality, I came across the "social model of disability." From what I have read, the social model says that disability is caused by the social environment rather than by the person. It ackowledges that the person has an impairment, but says that the impairment doesn't have to be a disability if the social environment is supportive of the individual enough to enable them to live independently. Is that right? 

If so, then is there any practical difference in policy in using the social rather than the medical model? Because someone who uses the medical model can also say that if society would be more accommodating then the individual could lead a more independent life. So it would seem like there isn't necessarily a practical difference between the models. Is the difference mainly a matter of semantics? 

Thanks so much! 


  • Adrian_Scope
    Adrian_Scope Posts: 9,767 Scope online community team

    Hello @Jon2

    Welcome to the community and thanks for raising this question. It's an interesting one!

    So, the social and medical models of disability are two ways of approaching disability and its impact. The medical model sees disability as a problem that sits with the person. It focuses on diagnosing and treating the individual's impairments or medical conditions. The social model looks at disability as a social issue created by the practices of society.

    But what does that practically look like? Well, social model approaches mean shifting focus from individual to society and creating policies that promote inclusion and accessibility on a wider level, so it will involve adjusting the setting around disabled people so they can fully participate. Meanwhile, a medical model approach may overlook society's role in creating barriers and will instead focus on a person's impairments and sometimes can reinforce a sense of reliance on medical professionals or carers.

    In short, the social model encourages social change, inclusion and empowerment, while the medical model focuses on intervention and, some might argue, limitations.

    You can read more about Scope's stance on the social model of disability on our website.
    Community Manager
  • Richard_Scope
    Richard_Scope Posts: 3,556 Scope online community team
    Hi @Jon2
    I agree with @Adrian_Scope, great question and one I have pondered myself as a physically disabled man.

    The medical model holds that disability is a problem within people’s bodies. It sees disabilities as imperfections that should and need to be cured or “fixed,” to return the person to being nondisabled or as close to non-disabled as possible. The medical model is intertwined with ableism viewing that disabled bodies and minds are less valuable than that of non-disabled people. That said I use "medical" equipment to function daily.

    The social model identifies that it is society’s lack of access and attitude towards disability that ends up disabling people. In other words, “while physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.”

    Then we have the Charity and Religious models that are similar to the Medical model in so far as they have their roots in implicit (Charity model) and explicit (Religious model), ableism.
    Specialist Information Officer and Cerebral Palsy Programme Lead

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  • Jon2
    Jon2 Community member Posts: 2 Listener
    Thank you both for your replies.

    But I'm not sure they are answering my question.

    My question is: Couldn't you hold of the medical model and still believe that society should be as inclusive as possible to make the lives of disabled people easier since that is a moral goal? And furthermore, couldn't you hold of the social model and believe that the medical community should try to develop cures or apparatuses for disability so that disable people will have an easier time, and disabled people should take advantage of those cures or apparatuses whenever possible so that they will have more ability? Or is there some mutual exclusivity here:  if you believe in the medical model, then you think society doesn't need to change. If you believe in the social model, then you think that disabled people shouldn't try their best to overcome disability. 
  • Richard_Scope
    Richard_Scope Posts: 3,556 Scope online community team
    My personal view is that the two models should be used in conjunction with each other. By that I mean; if I completely disregarded the medical model I would currently be on the floor instead of being sat in my wheelchair at the keyboard.

    The problem with the medical model is that at its heart disabled people are something to be cured or fixed and this devalues the personhood of disabled people and is ableist. 

    Through my interactions with lots of other disabled people and their supporters, the majority seem to hold both models at the same time but like anything involving people, there are purist views for each model and that is where the mutual exclusivity comes into play.

    Specialist Information Officer and Cerebral Palsy Programme Lead

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  • daresbury1978
    daresbury1978 Community member Posts: 55 Courageous
    Really interesting discussion. The disabled academic Dr. Tom Shakespeare wrote a very interesting paper about this some years ago. I think the paper might have used the heading "The Problem with the Social Model of Disability". He acknowledged the same question as raised by Jon2 above. Dr.Shakespeare offered the idea "ontological embodiment" as a means of dealing with the apparent conflict between the two models and I find that very useful. The term identifies the underlying basic human reality (simply 'BEING') and leaves one with the possibility of personal choice  with regards to what best explains our individual and personal "sense of being"?  I also wish to comment on the point Adrian_Scope makes with reference to a "sense of reliance on medical professionals". I wish to argue that the "social model" can create a "sense of reliance" on social workers or other social professionals. The writer George Bernard Shaw had the following to say: Thus:  "Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity". The professionals hold too much power? It is disabled people who are the experts. The so-called "professionals" are maybe simply "textperts"? How we allocate power is culturally informed. The "social model" is significant, in part, because it appears to redistribute power towards the disabled individual but, in reality, it takes it away.


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