Models of disability provide a framework for understanding the way in which people with impairments experience disability. They also provide a reference for society as laws, regulations and structures are developed that impact on the lives of disabled people. There are two main models that have influenced modern thinking about disability: the medical model and the social model.
In the medical model, disabled people are seen as the problem. They need to change and adapt to circumstances (if they can), and there is no suggestion that society needs to change. This model reflects the World Health Organization definition of disability.
The social model has been developed by disabled people. In their view disability is caused by the barriers that exist within society and the way society is organised, which discriminates against people with impairments and excludes them from involvement and participation. This model reflects the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) definition of disability.
The model of disability that underpins the support offered to disabled students at an institution can have important effects. For example, consider the two questions below that could appear in application forms.
Which question is motivated by the medical model and which by the social model?
Comment: The first question is medical based, as it asks about impairment and seeks to label the student by that impairment. The second question is social model based, as it is asking about identity and self-classification.
As a further example, an institution with a medical model approach might ask disabled students who are participating in practical activities to complete a risk assessment form. A university with a social model approach would have an inclusive form for completion by all students.
The DEMOS online materials for staff disability awareness compare the approach of two hypothetical universities, one of which operates according to the medical model and the other according to the social model of disability. The materials examine the way in which these two institutions might respond to issues in the context of teaching disabled students, and provide a number of interesting questions that you can answer.
The British Film Institute's guide Disabling imagery? A teaching guide to disability and moving image media provides a useful discussion of differences between the social and medical models.