Why are the medical and charitable models of disability inconsistent with human rights?

The medical and charitable models of disability are both inconsistent with human rights principles. As advocates, we should aim to challenge these outdated methods in all aspects of our work. But it’s important to understand why.

The problem with the medical model

The medical model focuses purely on a person’s impairment and sees the person with disability as the problem. It does not acknowledge the role society plays in limiting access and inclusion.

The medical model is based on two assumptions that have a dangerous impact on human rights. Firstly, it views people with disability as being incapable of performing tasks within a range that is thought to be “normal”. This assumption has underpinned historical policies aimed at:

  • Housing people with disability in institutions
  • Sending children with disability to special schools
  • Employing people with disability exclusively in sheltered workshops (4, 5)

Secondly, it holds that disability can be used as an excuse to restrict or deny someone’s rights and that people with disability are incapable of making important decisions about their lives. This assumption has underpinned historical policies relating to:

  • The forced sterilisation of women and girls with disability
  • The establishment of mental health and guardianship laws that take an incapacity approach to disability (4, 5)

This example shows how Kesha has been stripped of the right to make decisions about her own body and her own life. It is assumed that because she has Down syndrome, she does not have the same right to make these decisions as other women.


The problem with the charitable model

The charitable model is based on similar principles to those that underpin the medical model. It grew out of the emergence of charitable organisations that aimed to provide assistance to people with disability. While many charities did, and still do offer vital support, the charitable model compromises the rights of people with disability by:

  • Portraying people with disability as being reliant on others and unable to do things for themselves
  • Failing to recognise the views of people with disability as being valuable or essential
  • Failing to recognise the role society plays in restricting access for people with disability
  • Relying on the good will of others to fund services for people with disability, rather than recognising personal support as a right that government has an obligation to support (4, 5)

Although the organization has been established with the aim of assisting people with cerebral palsy, this example shows that people with cerebral palsy are not recognized as the experts and do not have a say in how the service is run.


(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