The Social and Medical Models of Disability

There are various models that strive to explain disability. The medical and social models look at disability from entirely different perspectives. They are also the two most common models. According to the medical model, disability is the disabled person’s problem. It is not an issue that should be of concern to the rest of the society. A good example would be in defining the problem when a disabled individual is unable to climb stairs with his wheelchair. In the opinion of the medical model, the problem would be seen as the wheelchair rather than the stars.

On the other hand, the social model views disability as a product of the society. According to the social model, the society develops everything so as to favor the needs of the majority. This way, it forms barriers that are disabling to a small fraction of the population. In the example of the wheelchair, the social model would argue that the stairs should be developed so as to accommodate everyone including the disabled (The Lancet, 2009). By so doing, the disabling barriers would either be minimized or removed.

Medical Model Disability

According to Waddell and Aylward (2010), the medical model of disability is mainly a medical treatment model. It mainly focuses on the biological treatment and pathology and is thus also referred to as the biomedical or the disease model. The medical model has been regarded to be synonymous with healthcare. Through this approach to disability, numerous advances have been made in regard to both disability and disease. It has been especially effective in situations where a specific in cases where there exists a biological pathology with an effective treatment.

The main foundation of the medical model is that all symptoms are an indication of disease or injury and that there should be intentions to cure the symptoms to enable the individual to return to work (Brisenden, 1986). It has been predominant over several generations and, therefore, provides a mechanism through which individuals including policy makers and healthy profession think about disability. According to Waddell and Aylward (2010), this can be indicated through the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps’ definition of disability that was published by the WHO in 1980. According to this definition, disability is a disadvantage that prevents an individual from participating in activities that are normal for his age gender, and social or cultural position. The medical approach to disability has also been an important factor in the generation of safety and health rules in most employee regulatory bodies. Traditionally, occupational health viewed work as an event that was likely to increase the risk of disease and injury to an individual. This paradigm has were important in the way policy makers, employers, and employees view work in its relationship to health and how common health issues could be managed.

The medical model has a more extensive impact on the society. According to Waddell and Aylward (2010), the medical model still explains how people view disability in society today. It is common to individuals to seek medical intervention for common health issues and being incapacitated until a cure for their problem is found. It is common to ask for sick leave for some events until a cure is found.

The Social Disability Model

The social model of disability has gained popularity in the past few decades. It, therefore, has a far less following than the medical model. The motivation for the social disability model has been to offer disabled persons equal rights with the rest of the society (Burchardt, 2004). Even then, it has not been very effective in the fight against economic and occupational disadvantage. The adoption of the social disability model was done in the 1960s after evidence was obtained that showed a relationship between disability, social exclusion, and poverty. As a consequence, groups fighting for the rights of the disabled person sought for a departure from the traditional medical model to the social disability model. The model argued that the restrictions suffered by the disabled are not based on their disability, but the barriers placed by able-bodied persons such as the lack of access for wheelchairs and social attitudes.

According to this approach, the society does create mechanisms that would enable disabled to pursue their full potential (Connors & Stalker, 2007). This often results in a complex formulation of social discrimination against disabled individuals. The social model sought to close the gap and depict the disabled as individuals with diverse abilities.


The social disability model sees disability as a difference while the medical model sees disability as a deficiency or an abnormality. Rather than viewing disability as a problem, the social disability model sees it as variability. It is it as a departure from the majority. It feels that the variability is like any other that would cause people to be different (The Lancet, 2009). It, therefore, sees no need for finding a solution to it but instead seeks ways to accommodate the different individual in the society. To the social disability model, the difficulties met by a disabled person are created by an irresponsible or misinformed society.

The solutions to disability differ according to the two models. The social disability model sees the solution to disability as creating mechanisms to reduce the impact of the difference on the individual (Burchardt, 2004). According to the medical model, the solution to disability is providing a solution to disability involves the normalization or cure of the person (Donoghue, 2003). This way, the individual does not the person’s problem would be permanently resolved.

The role of resolving the issue of disability lies in the whole society according to the social model. On the other hand, the role of resolving the problem of disability lies with medical specialists. It is their role to use the various apparatus available to them to remove the difference that exists between the disabled and the rest of the population (Donoghue, 2003). While the role may seem easier this way since the group involved is much smaller, some disabilities are permanent. In such cases, the medical profession is assumed to have failed in its role.

The cost of resolving disability is cheaper according to the medical model. Since only the disabled individual incurs costs, they are far lower. In the case of the social model, the cost of removing the disability is taken by the entire society. Every builder must put up measures to ensure that the disabled individual is comfortable at their premises. In trying to do this, costs are incurred.

The person who bears the difficulties of the disability also differs. The medical disability model is based on the belief that the cost of disability should be borne wholly by the disabled individual. They should be the person who should seek a cure for their problem or embrace the difficulties associated with the stress. On the other hand, other members may suffer the challenges of disabilities in the social model (Goodley, 2011). A class instructor must, for example, develop handouts with a bigger font size if they serve a student with visual disability. By doing this, they will be bearing the difficulties of associated with the disability. According to the medical model, the disabled individual should seek interference to ensure they do not need a larger font than the rest of the class. It is not the role of the instructor to deal with the unique needs of the student.

Disability is viewed as a negative aspect in the medical perspective. Such persons are seen as lacking in certain attributes that would make them complete. The disability, as mentioned earlier, is a problem that is calling for a solution. On the other hand, the social model views disability as a neutral aspect. The social model does not see the disability as a problem and, therefore, shuns the need to seek solutions. The only way the society participates in this regard is by putting up mechanisms that would be comfortable for every individual in the society (Goodley, 2011). The problem of mechanism is dealt with in the same way as every other difference that occurs among people. Resolving disability is done in the same way as determining the difference in height among school pupils. The shorter students are placed in the front class rather than being placed at the back. They are also given more succinct chairs to maximize their comfort. In such a class, height is not viewed as a weakness or as a problem. Instead, they are regarded as normal students. The only challenge occurs if such students are not allowed to sit at the front or are not provided with shorter chairs.

The Social disability views the society as a disabled one. While everyone has their weaknesses, the more pronounced and unique weaknesses are highlighted while ignoring the more common ones. The social model feels that the failures of the disabled are based on the discrimination they suffer from their society as the society seeks to serve the majority while ignoring the disabled minority (Marks, 1997). In the work place, since such individuals may only have access to certain facilities and resources, they are unable to perform in the same way as their normal counterparts.

The medical model on the other hand holds that only a small group of individuals is disabled. With this belief, the medical model seeks to ease the suffering of individuals by obtaining a treatment that is unique to his case (Marks, 1997). The medical model does not see the need for the individual’s problem to affect the rest of the society. Instead, it argues that such an individual should bear the entirety of his problem.

In conclusion, the social and medical models of disability are very different from each other. While the social model has only been adopted recently, the medical disability model has been around for a longer time. Consequently, it has a bigger following from policy makers, individuals and health professionals. The advantage of the medial model is that it has served to identify lasting solutions to some disability issues. Even then, it leaves some unresolved. On the other hand, the social disability model is advantageous as it fosters equality for the disabled persons.


Waddell, G., & Aylward, M. (2010). Models of sickness and disability: applied to common health problems.

Brisenden, S. (1986). Independent Living and the Medical Model of Disability. Disability, Handicap & Society1(2), 173-178. doi:10.1080/02674648666780171

Burchardt *, T. (2004). Capabilities and disability: the capabilities framework and the social model of disability.Disability & Society19(7), 735-751. doi:10.1080/0968759042000284213

Connors, C., & Stalker, K. (2007). Children’s experiences of disability: pointers to a social model of childhood disability. Disability & Society22(1), 19-33. doi:10.1080/09687590601056162

DONOGHUE, C. (2003). Challenging the Authority of the Medical Definition of Disability: An analysis of the resistance to the social constructionist paradigm. Disability & Society18(2), 199-208. doi:10.1080/0968759032000052833

Goodley, D. (2011). Social psychoanalytic disability studies. Disability & Society26(6), 715-728. doi:10.1080/09687599.2011.602863

Marks, D. (1997). Models of disability. Disabil Rehabil19(3), 85-91. doi:10.3109/09638289709166831

The Lancet,. (2009). Disability: beyond the medical model. The Lancet374(9704), 1793. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(09)62043-2

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