Social model of disability

The social model of disability proposes that what makes someone disabled is not their medical condition, but the attitudes and structures of society. 

It is a civil rights approach to disability. If modern life was set up in a way that was accessible for people with disabilities then they would not be excluded or restricted. The distinction is made between ‘impairments’, which are the individual problems which may prevent people from doing something, and ‘disability’, which is the additional disadvantage bestowed by a society which treats these ‘impairments’ as abnormal, thus unnecessarily excluding these people from full participation in society. The social model of disability says that it is society which disables impaired people.

Some of the key ways people are disabled by society are:

  • prejudice
  • labelling
  • ignorance
  • lack of financial independence
  • families being over protective
  • not having information in formats which are accessible to them.

An illustration of the social model of disability in practice would be a town designed with wheelchairs in mind, with no stairs or escalators. If we designed our environment this way, wheelchair users would be able to be as independent as everyone else. It is society which puts these barriers on people by not making our environments accessible to everyone.


The social model of disability was developed by people with disabilities in the 1970s and 1980s. It came as a reaction to the medical model of disability which had been widely agreed with at the time.

The medical model of disability

The medical model states that disability is caused by the health condition a person has and the nature of this condition will determine what they can and can’t do. The medical model would say that in order for everyone to participate fully in society, everyone would need a non-disabled body and mind. This makes ‘disability’ the result of the person being different, not of society.


How does this affect people with learning disabilities?

Using the social model of disability as a theory instead of the medical model can change people’s outlooks on what other people can achieve, and how organisations and our environments should be structured. People who follow this way of thinking will be able to see past the outdated policies and procedures that can be a barrier to people with learning disabilities leading full and active lives.

Despite much progression in the public perception of people with learning disabilities, there is still some stigma about what people with learning disabilities can and can’t do. Using the social model of disability, there should be no limits set on what people with learning disabilities can achieve; the key is finding the support which they need to enable them to achieve these things.

The academic Tom Shakespeare writes on the need to reject treating the social model as a ‘sacred cow’ that must not be challenged, instead proposing a movement towards a medical and social continuum, with the central argument that as we are all ‘impaired’ in some manner, it is not the core component of disability.  The impact of the body on one’s life is thus included, without needing to divide between ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’ people.