The Social Model and Moving Foward

There are many ways to view disability. Viewpoints, like society, are always changing.  Not always for the better and not always at the pace we might like.  It used to be (and sadly still is for some) that disability represented a personal tragedy.  A horrible twist of nature that needed to be cured.  Think telethons or those ads that depict the sad child sitting in the wheel chair all alone.  We have moved on (slightly) since then and realized that people with disabilities should be included in our society (at least we should remove physical barriers).  But, attitudes of tragedy and suffering still remain.  Think about the last time you read the newspaper.  I bet you saw a story about someone who “suffers” from a disability, or Toronto’s mess of a traffic scene described as “crippled.”


In the 1970’s a group in Britain called Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation stated that “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.” (  They argued that disability was a construction of society.  (by that I mean: a wheelchair user isn’t disabled because they use a wheelchair, but because society continues to build stairs).  They changed the language to reflect this, differentiating between disability (social construction) and impairment (the lived condition).  They removed any trace of illness, medicalization or suffering from the idea of disability. This reaction against viewing disability as a medicalized problem was at the time, groundbreaking. This from this theory sprung the disability rights movement.  Disability rights groups have been instrumental in helping to push forward legislation like the AODA.


[ASIDE: Don’t know what those letters stand for?  Don’t worry, despite the act having been around for years, you aren’t alone.  It refers to the Accessibility for Ontarian’s with Disability Act which (if ever enforced) has the potential to make Ontario accessible by 2025.]


While the social model helped to clarify the social construction of disability. The model left some people out in the cold.  The movement was composed primarily of wheelchair using, white, heterosexual males.  Women, people of colour, people with intellectual impairments, people experiencing mental health, people who experience pain (or suffering) as a part of their impairment and a host of other people were (unintentionally) left out.


A new theory has arisen to try to create a space for those who were left out of the social model. Disability justice. The social model wanted to put everyone on equal footing.  If we created access then everyone would be equal right?  Not so much. There is a difference equality and equity. (see my past blogs to learn the difference). Disability justice celebrates difference, challenges what is considered ‘normal’ and argues that we are all affected by ableism. (Ableism = discrimination towards people with disabilities.) Think about it: ableism is discrimination towards anyone who doesn’t meet the ‘norm.’ How many of us non disabled, heterosexual, young, white, socio economically privileged males?  And how many of us will stay in that category for long?


So … let’s move forward.