Being disabled is not purely a medical problem for an individual… The physical and mental barriers within society create real obstacles as well

I’ve always been partially sighted, and have experienced mental health issues since my teens. For years, I felt that being disabled was about things being ‘wrong’ with me. Disability can often be seen as a personal tragedy, or an innate issue about an individual. It made me feel bad about myself, as if I was a problem.

All this changed when I was 19. I was at a meeting at my university for disabled students, and the head of the university’s disability service, Dave, told us about the social model of disability. When I left that room an hour later, my sense of self had shifted in a fundamental, wonderful way.

What is the social model of disability?

Put simply, the social model of disability is the idea that disabled people are disabled by society, not their impairments.

According to the charity Sense, the social model of disability emerged in the late 20th century, created by disability activists who were inspired by civil rights movements. Mike Oliver, who was a disabled academic, is credited for coming up with the term ‘social model of disability’ in 1983.

The social model is often seen as an alternative to the traditional ‘medical model’ of disability. The medical model says that people are disabled by their health condition or impairment. So, for me, as a partially sighted person, the medical model views the lack of pigment in my eyes and the sight loss this causes, as what disables me, rather than living in an inaccessible society.

Learning about the social model transformed how I view myself as someone with a visual impairment and mental ill-health.

If I can’t read a menu in a coffee shop, it’s the fact it’s in a small font that’s the problem, not me and my eyes. If the café were to provide it in a different format, I would be able to see it, and that disabling barrier would be removed. It’s liberating to realise it’s not me, it’s an inaccessible world.

The social model shifts the focus, so we realise disability is caused by society. It’s not just physical barriers, but harmful attitudes, too, that can disable us. As I walk around a busy city centre, it’s everything from the unmarked steps that I trip on, to the person who pushes past me and my cane, or the shop assistant who won’t speak directly to me. It’s the potential employer who thinks I can’t do a job because I’m disabled. These barriers are everywhere.

The impact

It’s not just me who found learning about the social model transformative. I asked two friends about the effect it had on them.

Oliver Wood is chair of the Service User and Carer Reference Group for the mental health social work charity Think Ahead, and has been active in the disabled people’s movement for several years. He first learnt about the social model at a conference focused on disabled students.

“It was, and I don’t say this lightly, life-changing,” Oliver tells me. “Suddenly, I had a framework within which to place my experiences, a way to conceptualise my life and my place within society that wasn’t based on seeing me as a problem that needed dealing with. I was around 20 at the time, and it was the first exposure I’d had to any theory that saw disability, difference, and atypical ways of being, as anything other than a defect that needed fixing.”

It’s similar for Anahita Harding, an artist who uses her experience of being a disabled woman in her work. “The social model of disability made me shift blame from myself, as being a burden on society, or my body/myself as being ‘wrong’ compared to non-disabled people, to thinking about how barriers in daily life were the disabling factors. Frustrations I had, or frustrations other people had with me, were not my fault, but the barriers around me,” says Anahita.

Discovering the social model not only changes how we feel about ourselves as individuals, but also has wider implications.

Through hearing about the social model, Anahita saw potential “for change in terms of attitudes from non-disabled people. I thought more deeply about how our society is not built for disabled people, and how disabled people need to be involved in all conversations surrounding aspects of our daily lives, such as education, architecture, healthcare, and public transport.”

Anahita adds: “It particularly made me see how facilities for disabled people need to have input from disabled people, rather than be designed by non-disabled people through a medical lens, or one of pity, or a want to heal. Our lived experiences as disabled people, which are crucial, need to be taken into account instead of being ignored.”

The challenges of the social model

There are some criticisms of the social model. It can be seen as minimising the challenges inherent in impairments. For me, being visually impaired can be difficult, knowing there are things I can’t see. And the symptoms of my mental ill-health can be distressing, regardless of the way society treats me.

A challenge faced by the social model is being too rigid or dogmatic in applying it, Oliver says. “What the social model is to me, is a way of understanding myself, and framing and positioning my experiences within the world,” explains Oliver. “It’s a way of conceptualising and understanding why it is that inequalities are generated, and people are disabled by the societies in which they live. It’s a lens to examine and interrogate these issues. As a way for individuals and groups to find a language of liberation, it has immense value.”

Mental health is sometimes left out of the conversation around the social model. Oliver says: “However, seeing the experience of disability as socially created, and therefore placed not within the individual, is a core tenant of the social model which, to me, is relevant to all people who experience impairment of any kind.”

While there are limits to the social model, I find it a helpful starting point in understanding my life as a disabled person. For me, Anahita, Oliver, and many others, it’s made a huge difference in how we view ourselves and our place in the world.

Coming out of that meeting at university where I found out about the social model spurred me on to campaign for disabled people’s rights. It changed how I see myself – that being disabled isn’t about something being wrong with us, but about living in an inaccessible society, and how that is something we all have the power to change.