Shifting models of thinking

Over decades, disability advocates have fundamentally shifted traditional thinking about models of disability to a new understanding where society as a whole takes responsibility for enabling inclusion.

The ‘medical model’ of disability focuses on the person’s impairment or physical or mental medical condition and regards the person as the ‘problem’ and unable to do certain things. This thinking has been fundamental in approaches like sending children to ‘special’ schools or employing people with disability only in sheltered workshops.

The ‘charity model’ of disability sees people with disability as in need of ‘help’, unable to do things for themselves. While many charities offer vital support, much traditional fundraising emphasised the helplessness of people with disability and risked undermining their autonomy, independence and rights. It is a model often adopted by mainstream media.

The ‘social model’ of disability is the most empowering for people with disability because it makes a distinction between impairment and disability and looks to remove barriers that restrict life choices. It holds that ‘disability’ does not come from having to use a wheelchair, for example, but from being unable to use stairs to get to work or board a train.

Other examples might include:

  • A teenager with a learning disability wants to live independently in their own home but is unsure how to pay the rent. Under the social model, the person would be supported so that they can pay rent and live in their own home.
  • A child with a vision impairment wants to read the latest best selling book that his or her sighted friends are enjoying. Under the social model, full-text audio recordings are made available when the book is first published.


Impairment is the lack of all or part of a limb, or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body while disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities that prevent people who have impairments from taking part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical, social, organisational and attitudinal barriers.