A smiling person sitting on a wheelchair reading a book outside with their pet cat.

What is the Social Model of Disability?

The social model of disability is the belief that disabled people are not defective or damaged, but rather they have been disadvantaged by society. For example, a wheelchair user might not be able to access a building because there are no ramps. This model arose in response to the medical model of disability, which focuses on individual deficits and medical treatments. The social model holds that society is responsible for accommodating disabled people and removing barriers to their inclusion. This approach has led to important changes, such as the passage of laws mandating accessibility in public places, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The social model has helped to shift attitudes about disability from pity and charity to acceptance and equality. The social model is now widely accepted as the best way to understand and support disabled people.

A wheelchair user looking up to the office that is currently inaccessible to them up a flight of stairs.
A wheelchair user looking up to the office that is currently inaccessible to them due to a flight of stairs.

How does the social model differ from the medical model?

The social model looks at how society can change to become more inclusive. In contrast, the medical model focuses on the individual. It sees disability as an issue that needs to be fixed or cured. For example, someone who is deaf might be assumed as needing a cochlear implant to ‘fix’ their hearing despite the fact that many members of the deaf community report a preference to not use implants. The medical model views disability as a problem to be solved, while the social model sees it as a part of the diversity of human bodies and minds. Because of the foci of the medical model, disabled people are seen as part of a devalued group, which without community and empowerment, often leads to internalized shame.

The medical model is non-holistic in that it does not make space for the context of a person in their environment. This includes the intersectionality of their identities, and their access to resources like nutrition, education, safety, healthcare, etc. The medical model is behavioral, which means it ignores the internal experience of the person to focus on what can be observed and measured by a professional. Therefore, the professional is seen as the expert and authority on their patient’s bodies and minds.

How does the medical model apply to mental health?

When applied to mental health, the medical model communicates its values and beliefs through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5), which is often referred to as the “Bible of psychiatry.” This book refers to hundreds of “disorders” that are described as lists of “symptoms” that medical and mental health professionals check off to assign diagnoses. These diagnoses operate as categories, in that you either have them or you don’t, which limits access to care available through insurance. Research and insurance coverage is prioritized for diagnoses that have a financial incentive, such as treatable through medication.

It feels important to note some specific harms of the medical model, such as homosexuality being considered a disorder in the DSM until 1973. The current DSM-5 (published in 2013) includes “Gender Dysphoria” and “Transvestic Disorder,” which are stigmatizing toward transgender and gender-variant people. The DSM-5 does not recognize neurodiversity, as it includes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as “neurodevelopmental disorders” and explicitly describes these genetic neurotypes in terms of “deficits.” This psychopathology approach is supported by groups like “Autism Speaks” which promote harmful therapies like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) which trains autistic people to suppress traits they use to soothe and regulate their nervous system. Much like gay conversion therapy (which is now banned in half of U.S. states), many autistic people report acquiring PTSD from undergoing ABA therapy.

A person using a walker talking to a medical professional
A person using a walker talking to a medical professional

What are some of the key concepts of the social model?

The social model focuses on the way society is structured, rather than on individual impairments. The key concepts of the social model include:

  • The idea that disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by individual impairments.
  • The need for social change to remove barriers that prevent disabled people from participating fully in society.
  • The importance of human rights, including the right to equality and inclusion.
  • The idea that disabled people should be empowered to participate fully in decisions about their lives.
  • Emphasis on the importance of disabled people being actively involved in society, rather than being seen as passive recipients of charity or care.
  • The need for positive representations of disabled people in the media and other forms of popular culture.

How has the social model been used to challenge ableism?

The social model of disability has helped shift the focus away from individual impairment and toward the ways in which society creates barriers for disabled people. It emphasizes the importance of inclusive design and accessible environments. And it highlights the potential for disabled people to lead rich and fulfilling lives. By challenging ableist attitudes and assumptions, the social model of disability has helped to create a more inclusive society, yet there is much more work to be done.

The social model has been incredibly influential within the Disability Rights Movement and has helped to shape many key policies and initiatives. A fantastic documentary, Crip Camp (2020), details a successful 1977 civil disobedience campaign for accessibility legislation. (Available on Netflix and youtube).

What are some criticisms of the social model?

There are a few criticisms of the social model of disability. One is that it can be used to reinforce the idea that disabled people are somehow less capable than non-disabled people. Another criticism is that the social model does not always take into account the individual experiences of disabled people, who may face additional barriers due to their impairments. Finally, some argue that the social model does not always address the root causes of disability, such as poverty or lack of access to healthcare. Despite these criticisms, the social model of disability remains a useful framework for understanding and addressing the discrimination and exclusion that disabled people face.

How can we work to create a more inclusive society for people with disabilities?

Many disabled people still face barriers in education, employment, and housing. One in four people in the United States has a disability, yet our society often fails to accommodate their needs. Everything from public transportation to the built environment can pose challenges for people with disabilities, making it difficult to participate fully in society. To create a more inclusive society, we need to take steps to ensure that everyone can access the same opportunities and resources. One way to do this is by increasing awareness and understanding of the issues faced by the disabled. By working to break down barriers and create a more inclusive society, we can ensure that everyone can participate fully in all aspects of life.









The social model of disability provides a framework for understanding the barriers that people with disabilities face in our society. It is important to remember that these barriers are not inherent to the person, but rather they are created by the way our society is structured. The social model has been used effectively to challenge ableism and create more inclusive environments, but many challenges still remain. By working together to raise awareness and bring about change, we can move closer to a society where everyone can participate fully. What can you do to help create a more inclusive society for people with disabilities?






Images generated with DALL-E

Crip Camp (2020). Documentary – Watch for free on Youtube or on Netflix.

Kupferstein, H. (2018). Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior anlaysis. Advances in Autism, 4(1). DOI: 10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016

Medical and Social Models of Disability. University of California, San Francisco.

Novic, S. (2018). A clearer message on cochlear implants. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/opinion/deaf-cochlear-implants-sign-language.html

Owens. J. (2014). Exploring the critiques of the social model of disability: The transformative possibility of Arendt’s notion of power. Sociology of Health & Illness, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.12199

Uyeda, R. (2021). How LGBTQ+ activists got “homosexuality” out of the DSM. JSTOR Daily

Whalen, K. (n.d.). (In)validating transgender identities: Progress and trouble in the DSM-5. National LGBTQ Task Force.