How the social model paved the way for the human rights model

Before the human rights model came the social model of disability. The social model

  • Emerged in the 1980s
  • Focuses on barriers to access that are created by mainstream society
  • Asserts that people with disability are disabled by the environment they live in, and not by the features of their own bodies.

The social model has played an important role in the history of the disability rights movement in Australia and overseas. For the very first time, it gave people with disability a framework for recognising that many of the challenges they faced rested with the decisions and actions of society, and not with themselves. (4, 5, 7, 13)

Importantly, the social model makes a clear distinction between impairment and disability –

The impairment in the previous case study was blindness, or the fact that Lila could not see. According to the social model, however, her impairment is not what was disabling her. She was disabled by the university’s failure to provide accessible information, not by the fact that she couldn’t see.

The social model has played an important role in advancing the rights of people with disability by:

  • Helping people with disability to understand the social nature of their condition
  • Recognising that society as a whole is responsible for enabling inclusion
  • Paving the way for the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation in Australia and overseas
  • Providing a framework for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • Recognising that disability is caused by the way that society is organised, not by the presence of a particular medical condition or impairment. (1, 4, 5, 7)

While the social model is still used in disability advocacy today, there are a number of flaws with this framework. These flaws have been addressed through the development of the human rights model. (4, 5)


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

(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.

(13) Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (2008) From Principle to Practice: Implementing the Human Rights Based Approach in Community Organisations