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Social Model of Disability 1

A wheelchair user has no issues until they encounter stairs without a ramp.

The social model of disability describes how physical or psychological differences are only disabling when society fails to accommodate them. People with disabilities are primarily challenged by the barriers in society which do not take into account their specific individual needs. These societal encumbrances exist in the physical, organizational, and personal aspects of the world. Disability isn't caused by defective brains or bodies, but by society's failure to accommodate certain natural differences.

Examples of disabling things can include negative attitudes towards a neurodivergent person's stimming, information being unavailable in Braille, or multi-story buildings lacking elevators.

The social model of disability shifts blame from individual brains and bodies to society's inaccessibility. Disabled people are seen as equal to non-disabled people, simply disadvantaged by a poor environment. Fixing disability would mean tweaking society to accommodate a wider range of human abilities.

The social model of disability challenges negative attitudes towards disabled people. It treats them as ordinary human beings who face outside obstacles instead of broken objects of pity. The disability rights movement, including the autism rights movement, sometimes use this model while advocating for greater accessibility. Equality for people with disabilities is treated as similar to struggles for equality in other socially marginalized groups.

Laws and attitudes[]

In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act defines disability using the medical model - disabled people are defined as people with certain conditions, or certain limitations on their ability to carry out ‘normal day-to-day activities’. But the requirement of employers and service providers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their policies or practices, or physical aspects of their premises, follows the social model. By making adjustments, employers and service providers are removing the barriers that disable - according to the social model, they are effectively removing the limitations of the person's disability.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It affords similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, and other characteristics illegal. Certain specific conditions are excluded, including alcoholism and transgender identity.

See also[]

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