How does the human rights model differ from the social model?

There are 4 key differences:

  1. The human rights model embraces impairment

The human rights model:

  • Acknowledges the impact of impairment in the lives of people with disability
  • Recognises impairment as a natural aspect of human diversity that governments have a responsibility to support
  • Establishes the right of people with disability to live independently and be included in the community
  • Acknowledges that the goal of enabling people with disability to live independently and be included in the community is about far more than simply removing mainstream barriers. (4, 5, 7, 8)

The social model does not acknowledge the very real impact of impairment in the lives of people with disability, such as chronic pain and shorter life expectancy. It also has a tendency to treat all impairment the same. (4, 5, 7, 9)

The social model:

  • Is primarily concerned with addressing barriers that are created by mainstream society
  • Makes the assumption that people with disability will be able to access the services they need once these barriers have been removed.

The human rights model acknowledges that mainstream barriers that exist in society are only one part of the puzzle. Even once these barriers have been removed, many people with disability will still need a range of disability-related supports in order to enjoy their rights on an equal basis with others. (7) Without this support, young people like Aaron may never have choice and control over where they live and in an environment that feels right for them. It is the human rights model, and not the social model, that has driven major reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).


  1. The human rights model recognises people with disability as experts in all matters that affect them

While the social model recognises society has a role to play in enabling access, it does not necessarily see the views of people with disability as essential. It, therefore, fails to acknowledge people with disability as experts in their own lives.

The human rights model addresses this flaw by placing a strong focus on the active participation of people with disability by recognising that:

  • People with disability are experts in their own lives
  • People with disability are active stakeholders in all matters that affect them.

For example, the NDIS aims to recognise each participant as an expert in their own life. It does this by allowing each individual to determine which supports they need, and the terms on which these supports should be provided. This turns the professional into a service provider whose role is to offer guidance and carry out the client’s decisions.


  1. Equality does not mean treating everyone the same

The social model is based on the principle of equal opportunity. It assumes that by treating all people in society the same, everyone will have access to the same opportunities. It is a flawed model because it assumes that everyone in society starts on a level playing field which we know is not the case. (1, 10)

We know, for example, that people with disability in Australia:

  • Face a heightened risk of violence or abuse
  • Are far more likely to be unemployed or underemployed
  • Have lower levels of educational attainment
  • Are far less likely to participate in activities outside the home.

The human rights model addresses this shortfall by:

  • Acknowledging the power imbalance that exists between different groups of people in society
  • Requiring governments to put measures in place to improve outcomes for marginalised groups (1, 10)

The Australian Government’s RecruitAbility Guaranteed Interview Scheme is a good example of such a measure. In 2017, the rate of unemployment of people with disability was twice the national average. Further to this, only 3.6% of employees working in the Australian public service identified as having a disability. This is despite the fact that people with disability of working age make up nearly 15% of the Australian population. The Australian Public Service Commission rolled out the scheme to combat this problem across all government departments. Job applicants with disability who opt into the scheme and meet the minimum requirements of a vacancy advertised under the scheme are automatically advanced to the next stage of the recruitment process. (3)


  1. The human rights model places accountability on governments to take action

While the social model provides a framework for describing disability, it does not require governments to take any proactive steps to advance the rights of people with disability.

The human rights model addresses this shortfall by:

  • Explaining the steps that must be taken by governments to uphold, promote and protect the rights of people with disability in each area of public life
  • Requiring governments to report to the United Nations on the steps taken to advance the rights of people with disability every four years
  • Requiring governments to actively consult with people with disability in the development of all new policies, laws and programs that might affect them (2)


(1) Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2018) General comment No. 6 on equality and non-discrimination

(2) Commonwealth of Australia, Attorney-General’s Department (2018) Public sector guidance sheets: Rights of people with disability

(3) Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Public Service Commission (2018) Recruitability

(4) Degener, T (2014) ‘A Human Rights Model of Disability’, from: Routledge Handbook of Disability Law and Human Rights

(5) Degener, T. (2016) Disability in a Human Rights Context

(7) Morris, J. (2009) Impairment and Disability: Constructing an Ethics of Care that Promotes Human Rights, Hypatia_ 16 (4):1-16.

(8) Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2019) The Core International Human Rights Instruments and their monitoring bodies

(10) Retief, M. & Letšosa, R. (2018) Models of disability: A brief overview, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 74(1), a4738.