There are various ways of conceptualising disability. These models are important to consider as they frame the way our society understands disability and influence our attitudes and behaviours towards people with disability. They also affect the way in which we structure our laws, social supports, health care and educational institutions.
Historically, disability has been viewed through a medical model which has been largely rejected in favour of a social model which provides a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of the interplay between people and the environment in which they live.
The medical model locates the 'problem' of disability in the body of the individual, rather than in society itself or in the way the mind or body is perceived.
Through the medical model, people with disabilities are considered abnormal and 'disability' is seen to be a problem of the individual. From the medical model, a person with disability is in need of being fixed or cured, and perceived as an object of pity and defined by what they cannot do.
This model has been strongly criticised for creating a false opposition between ability/normal and disability/abnormal, as well as narrowly focusing on individual impairments rather social and environmental factors.
The social model looks at disability as a result of environmental and social factors where people are excluded by disabling barriers in society and the physical environment. Therefore, the disabling elements of the environment must be adjusted to enable people living with disability to participate in society on an equal basis.
For example, if a person who is a wheelchair user approaches a building, but is unable to enter due to the presence of steps, a social model perspective understands the problem to be the inaccessible building with no ramp rather than the person using the wheelchair.
The social model does not deny the reality of disability or its impacts, but rather challenges us to think about how we might adjust the physical and social environment to allow for all people to be fully participating citizens.
The social model is now the internationally dominant way to conceptualise disability and this paradigm shift is embedded in The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.