Medical or Social? Two ways of looking at disability

Medical and social models – what do they mean?

There are two main ways of describing disability – one uses the medical model, the other uses the social model.

There are two main ways to talk about disabilities: the medical model and the social model. It is important to know the difference because these approaches affect how people with disabilities are treated and how they get help. The medical model sees disability as a problem in the person’s body that needs fixing by doctors and treatments. The social model says disability happens because of how society is set up and how people think. It believes society should change to include everyone, and it focuses on removing barriers that stop people from taking part. The social model also believes in equal rights and using respectful language. It wants everyone to work together to make a better world for people with disabilities.

The medical model of disability

The medical model of disability and special needs sees disability as a problem that belongs to the person.

The focus is on diagnosing and treating the individual’s medical condition to “fix” or reduce the disability.

Medical professionals including doctors, nurses and psychologists are responsible for addressing the challenges. Treatments might include being prescribed drugs, surgery, therapy, and assistive devices.

The Key features of the medical model of disability include:

1.Finding a cure: The main aim of the medical model is to cure or make reduce the effects of the disability. The focus of the medical model is to try and make the person ‘normal’ according to the standard of the country or culture.

2. Impairments: The focus is on labelling the person based on their medical diagnoses, and what medical interventions can “correct” or minimize the effects of the disability. Diagnosis is essential before treatment or interventions can proceed.

A blue character is standing talking. They are wearing a name badge and stethoscope indicating they are a doctor. They are pointing to a checklist above their head and a speech bubble coming from his mouth shows a bottle of pills and a silhouette of a head with cogs inside. There is an arrow pointing from the pills to the head.
Medical Model: finding ways to “cure” the individual.

3. Professional Authority: The medical professionals are the key decision makers, they decide the nature of the disability, what causes it and how to make the situation better. The person with the disability is often seen as passive, they are not expected to have a voice in their diagnosis or care.

4. Biomedical Approach: The medical model focuses on finding medical solutions, including taking drugs, surgery and therapy as the main way of sorting out the challenges linked to the disability.

5. Reliance on Professionals: The person with the disability is often seen as needing help from the medical professionals and health system to diagnose, manage and improve their needs.

The Social model of disability

The social model of special needs and disability takes the view that disability is a result of social  barriers and the attitudes of people.

The Key features of the social model of disability include:

1.The environment: The social model places the responsibility on society to create an inclusive and accessible environment for people with disabilities. It believes that societies and people’s  attitudes, customs, and the physical environment can either help or hinder people with disability taking part and thriving.

2. Barriers and Discrimination: The social model identifies different barriers, including how things are designed built, how people communicate and how they think can exclude people with disabilities from taking part in society. The barriers are seen as the main reason for the issues around disability rather than the disability.

3. Inclusion and taking part: The social model pushes for people to be included in all parts of society including education, work, travel, and social activities including sports and hobbies.

4. Rights and Advocacy: The social model believes in equal rights, opportunities, and respecting people with disabilities. It believes policies should change, there should be legal protections, and society should shift to enable people with disabilities rights are upheld.

5.Language and Terminology: The social model wants people to use person-first language see the person first rather than seeing their disability first.

6. Working together: The social model encourages people to work together so people with disabilities, their families (including siblings), organizations, and policymakers to recognise and remove barriers that stop or reduce full participation.

7. Responsibility: The social model places the responsibility on society to create environments that support people with different needs.

A character in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy is looking at a person who is talking to them in a friendly way. They are pointing to a group of hands in a circle to signify working together.
Social Model: Working together to make society and environment more inclusive and accessible!
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