Models of Disability

This Plain English version of the Models of Disability was developed so that more people from a wide range of countries can understand the meaning.  In 2004, Elisabeth Standen (then at the Bristol University Centre for Access and Communication Studies, told me to explain these 4 models in Turkey.  for participants on EU projects with enough English to join in activities.

This “Models of Disability” text exists in Turkish,

Arabic and Albanian

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Models of Disability

There are different ways of looking at the situation of disabled people.  In the past there were 3 models, but in the 1970s, disabled people started to develop a 4th model.  This model is called the ‘Social Model of Disability’. In this model, everyone shares the responsibility to include everyone in our society; everyone has the right to a good quality of life; people who are different are seen as a richness, not as a burden.

This text about the 4 models of disability is written by disabled people.  In this text:

WE / us/ our = Disabled people, people with impairments (medical condition), people who have to live with these differences.  We are disabled by the inaccessible buildings, systems that we cannot use and the way society is organized when they do not think about our needs.

THEY / them/ their = non-disabled people, most people in society that are not aware of disabled people and our needs.

We wrote this text like this because we want people to question their assumptions (things they think are right, but they should check if others agree). Please tell us your ideas and help us make this text better.

  1. The Individual Model:  “They see our disability. They do not see us as people like them. They see problems; they do not see solutions.  Our disability is a “problem”, and we must find solutions.  We must try to be like “normal” people. We must fit into “normal” society. If we do not fit into normal society, we are excluded because they think that we are not useful. We do not matter, we do not count, we are not counted. They are negative about us.  They don’t talk with us.  They don’t (want to) know what we need.  Most of the time they expect us to fail; when we do not fail they are surprised.  They do not see similarities.  They see differences. These differences can upset or frighten them and sometimes they are agressive towards us. They do not want us in their society.  We are outside, they marginalise us (push us out, to the edge).”
  2. The Tragedy Model: “We are not equal: They see us as helpless, weak, sad, angry, unable to manage. They are strong and powerful; they protect us. We are dependent on them because we cannot do things: They don’t believe we can learn or be independent, so they not allow us to learn.  They teach us to be helpless; some of us cannot take decisions, and always need their help. They think that we are victims, ‘suffering a personal tragedy’.  Sometimes they think we are ‘brave’, but they rarely ask us how we really feel. They pity us, they feel sorry for us. They think Pity is a ‘sign of love’, but they do not respect us.  This is not love, it is their own complex feelings because they are frightened about disability. They are emotional and their behaviour is not natural. Sometimes they are too dramatic, and we protect ourselves by putting a distance. Society thinks they are great because they help us; they even get prizes and appear on TV.  But are they giving us the help that we need?  Do they ask us what we want?”
  3. The Professional Model: “Doctors and other “experts”[1] are different from us because they have studied about Disability, they know theory and technical information. They are powerful people because they have solutions.  They say that they can “cure” us of our disability.  Their solutions are logical and technical; they don’t think about our feelings and our ideas and choices are not important. They label us with jargon and complicated words that we don’t understand.  They focus on our impairments, they only look at a small part of us (our body or our mind): we are a medical (or other) defect.  They want to cure us to make a “perfect” person, to make us “normal”.  They think that every disabled person wants to be normal.  They decide for us: they don’t explain the information we need to make decisions.  We are objects and do not have the right to choose; sometimes we are interesting cases.
  4. The Social Model:  “We can do many things: we learn what we are interested in; our medical difference can mean we may do things in different ways. We can access things, places and opportunities, so that we can reach our goals.  We can make decisions about our lives, just like them.  We understand how systems work, we know how to ask for what we need; so we ask for possible things, we are realistic.  Everyone thinks about how we can be included in society.  People in power have to think about our needs; the law says this, and they are trained.  We can be active and participate fully. We are part of the processes of society, from the discussions and decisions, to checking that systems work.  When they live and work with us, they can understand our needs and they are sensitive to our differences.  They understand that their attitudes can affect others.  Everyone communicates clearly: We are all PEOPLE; not ‘THEMandUS’.”[1] Here “Expert” refers to a person who studies theory, researches and writes about a small part of our lives: medical, educational, psychological, sports, architecture, sociology, … But do they understand about living with disability?   In fact, we are the best experts about our own conditions; sometimes, we just aren’t aware of how much we can do.Summary of the 4 models:      Table 1: Models of disability – Attitudes and feelings
    Model of disAbility Us – disabled people Them – non disabled people
    Individual We are alone Disability is irrelevant
    Tragedy We are pitied They feel sorry for us
    Expert We know nothing Expert knows everything
    Social We are responsible Everyone is involved

    Table 2:  Models of disability  –  Action and behaviour

    Model Us – disabled people Them – non-disabled people
    Individual Not involved,  Some work on our problems Do nothing
    Tragedy Receive help Give help and charity
    Expert Objects that do nothing Experts do everything
    Social Involved in decisions and tasks Participate equally