Models of disability

The two main models for responding to disability are the Medical and the Social models.

The Social Model of Disability has been gaining in popularity since its introduction in the mid-1970s. For example, access has been created for wheelchair users in public buildings, universities, restaurants and on buses and trains. There is still a long way to go, however, before it fully replaces the earlier Medical Model of Disability and social justice is achieved for all those with disabilities.

This guide is designed to support all staff at UCA to fulfil the aspirations for fairness and justice for all students, and to meet our legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

Medical Model

The Medical Model of disability sees disability as a defect that must be cured or eliminated. Control lies with the medical profession.

It has been called the ‘individual model’ as it focuses on the individual’s response to impairment.

Social Model

The Social Model is based on the belief that people are disabled by society, rather than their impairments. It has grown out of a movement by disabled people to challenge the social injustice of their marginalization, where, for example, they may be excluded from buildings, from transport systems and education. This model puts the emphasis on society (and education) to remove injustice.


Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like dyslexia and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human brains and mind.

Further thoughts

‘… 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. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society.’

(Oliver, 1996:22, an edited version from UPIAS document Fundamental Principles of Disability)

‘We would argue that dyslexia is an experience that arises out of natural human diversity on the one hand and a world on the other where the early learning of literacy, and good personal organisation and working memory is mistakenly used as a mark of “intelligence”. The problem here is seeing difference incorrectly as “deficit”.’

(Cooper, 2006:24)

Comparing the medical and social models of disability

Medical model Social model
Person is faulty Person is valued
Diagnosis Strengths and needs defined by self and others
Labelling Identify barriers and develop solutions
Impairment becomes focus of attention Outcomes-based programmes designed
Assessment, monitoring Resources made available
Segregation and alternative services Training for carers and professionals
Ordinary needs put on hold Relationships nurtured
Re-entry if ‘normal’ enough or
permanent exclusion
Diversity welcomed; person is welcomed
Society remains unchanged Society evolves

(Rieser, 2001:139)

The Medical Model for disability positions people as different in some way and in need of support to make them less different. This includes speakers of English as an additional language with different linguistic skills. The Social Model positions diversity and difference as normal. Such a position (supported by the Equality Act 2010) requires that diversity is assumed and that all interactions are designed from this inclusive stance. As the Medical Model has been the primary approach at universities, many may need help to shift their practices to be more inclusive.

Further reading:

Cooper, R. (2006) ‘A social model of dyslexia’ in: Language Issues, 18:2, pp.24-26

Cooper, R. (2007) ‘Can it be a good thing to be deaf?’ in: Journal of Medical Philosophy 32 (6), pp.563-83

Cooper, R. (2009) ‘Dyslexia’ in Pollak, D. (ed.) Neurodiversity in Higher Education: positive responses to specific learning differences Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.63-89

Open Learn: Inclusive Education: Knowing what we mean

Rieser, R. (2001) ‘The Struggle for Inclusion: the growth of a movement’ in: Barton, L. (ed.) Disability, Politics and Struggle for Change London: David Fulton

Rieser, R. and Mason, M. (1992, rev. edn) Disability Equality in the Classroom: a human rights issue London: Disability Equality in Education