The social model of disability is a way of thinking created by disabled people. It puts the responsibility on society to remove the barriers disabled people experience. It allows us to make impactful and lasting change in society. It creates a more inclusive world for everyone.

What is the social model of disability?

The social model says that it’s not someone’s impairment or condition that disables them. It’s the barriers created by society that disable them. These barriers stop people from having equal access to the world around them.

For example, not being able to go to a restaurant because there’s only stairs and no ramp. These barriers are what stop disabled people from being able to participate in society.

So under the social model, people don’t ‘have a disability’. They have an impairment or condition. And it’s society that disables them depending on the situation. This is why social model language uses ‘disabled people’ instead of ‘people with a disability’. Society has disabled them, not their impairment or condition.

The social model of disability says society is responsible for removing these barriers. It’s not on the disabled person to find ways around or remove barriers created by society.

Instead, it’s everyone’s responsibility to remove barriers and embed accessibility. And to create an inclusive culture where attitudes are no longer barriers.

What do we mean by model?

It’s important to note that not all disabled people use social model language. And not everyone follows the social model of disability. This can be because it does not reflect their personal experience. Or because they do not find it useful in their lives.

The social model is not meant to describe a universal experience. It’s a model that helps us change people’s mindsets. To help them see the role society plays in the excluding disabled people.

It’s a useful tool for businesses to make impactful change for inclusion.

The medical model of disability

The medical model of disability focuses on the person’s impairment or condition. For example, it says that you cannot go to a restaurant because you use a wheelchair.

It says you’re disabled and cannot participate in society because you use a wheelchair. This means disability is often permanent under the medical model.

Whereas the social model says the lack of ramp makes you disabled.

How does the social model of disability work?

The social model of disability puts barriers into 3 main categories:

  • physical
  • digital
  • people’s attitudes

Physical barriers

People often think of physical barriers as only stairs or non-automatic doors. But actually it includes the environment in general. Like not being able to communicate with others.

Common physical barriers can be:

  • tannoy announcements without written alternatives
  • lack of quiet spaces or rooms with very bright lights you cannot lower
  • lack of accessible toilets
  • stairs with no ramp or lift
  • meeting rooms that are not wheelchair accessible

Digital barriers

A digital barrier can be a website, digital product or service that has not been designed with accessibility embedded. Digital barriers can include:

  • emails with text that doesn’t have enough colour contrast
  • training videos without captions
  • a website that doesn’t work with assistive technology
  • articles, instructions, policies, communications using complex language and large blocks of text
  • images without alt-text descriptions

Attitudinal barriers

Our research shows that 3 out of 4 disabled people (72%) have experienced negative attitudes or behaviour in the last 5 years.

Barriers around attitudes can include:

  • not hiring someone because of a condition or impairment
  • giving a disabled person easier or menial tasks
  • doing things for a disabled person without asking
  • assuming someone is faking because you cannot see their condition or impairment
  • not considering disabled people’s needs in your product or service

9 out of 10 disabled people (87%) said that social attitudes had a negative effect on their daily lives.

By embedding the social model in your business, you can begin to challenge these negative attitudes. You can help us all make impactful change for disability inclusion.

How society treats disabled people research

Why business should use the social model in the workplace

Following the social model as a business will mean everyone has the responsibility of removing barriers. Regardless of role. This means making sure you’re accessible:

  • internally for disabled colleagues
  • externally for disabled customers and clients

It also gives you a consistent approach to language and disability inclusion. It can help your workforce understand the importance of accessibility in their work. This includes things like:

  • the emails they write
  • the policies, documents and processes they develop
  • tweets, newsletters and posts they create
  • what they say in the office, in meetings, in messages

Disability inclusion and accessibility can benefit everyone

Embedding accessibility within your business does not just support disabled people. It benefits everyone. For example:

  • Plain English in your policies can help all staff understand them better.
  • Easy to follow web navigation means more customers are able to buy products quickly.
  • Remote interviews can mean you get access to talented candidates across the country.

Using the social model of disability can help you influence this change.

People have called this the ‘curb cut effect’. This comes from the fact that dropped curbs on pavements were first made for wheelchair users. But they are also useful for people with prams, for example. So, the changes you make to become more accessible can support people who are not disabled. This is also what people mean when they talk about ‘inclusive design’.

Getting started with inclusive design and accessibility

5 things to think about when designing inclusively

8 reasons why businesses need to care about inclusive design

Other benefits to using the social model

Creating an inclusive and accessible business can also inspire staff and customer loyalty. You’re showing your commitment to diversity and inclusion.

There is still around a 30% disability employment gap. Embedding the social model and accessibility can help you attract more candidates. And help them to stay and thrive in your business once employed.

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