The Medical VS Social Model of Disability


May 23, 2024

Purple graphic, with images of various different disabled people. Text reads - Medical vs social model.
Purple graphic, with images of various different disabled people. Text reads - Medical vs social model.


In the ever-changing ways in which we understand and view disability, two prominent models stand out: the Medical Model, and the Social Model. These models represent different perspectives on disability, shaping the way society views and interacts with disabled people. In this blog, we'll explore the nuances of these models. Looking at their strengths and weaknesses and asking if there is a way for them to work together.

The Medical Model

The Medical Model views disability as a medical condition, as something to be fixed or cured. The emphasis is placed on the disabled person, diagnosing, treating, and in some cases rehabilitating disabled people to minimise the impact of their condition. It places importance on medical interventions, therapies, and assistive technologies to address the physical or cognitive aspects of disabilities. While this model has significantly contributed to advancements in healthcare, it also reduces disabled people down to solely as something to be fixed or cured and ignores the huge societal issues that disabled people face. The medical model would see a wheelchair user sitting in front of some steps and think - isn’t it a shame that their legs can’t be fixed because now they can’t get up the stairs.

Strengths of the Medical Model:

  • Emphasis on medical expertise and advancements.

  • Aims to improve the individual's functional abilities.

  • Provides a framework for understanding the biological aspects of disability.

Weaknesses of the Medical Model:

  • Views disability primarily as a medical problem or deficit.

  • May contribute to stigmatisation by framing disability as an abnormality.

  • Emphasizes the individual's condition rather than societal and environmental factors.

  • Does not actively promote social inclusion and accessibility.

  • Can contribute to depersonalisation by treating individuals as passive recipients of medical care. This may lead to a loss of autonomy and decision-making power.

  • Frames individuals with disabilities as needing to be 'fixed.'

  • May not account for the variability of experiences among people with the same medical diagnosis.

  • May not give sufficient consideration to the holistic well-being and quality of life beyond medical measures.

  • Doesn’t always recognise the intersections of disability like race, gender, and class and how that can impact a person and the care and treatment they need.

The Social Model

The Social Model sees disability as a result of societal barriers rather than an inherent flaw in the individual. It places importance on dismantling physical, attitudinal, and systemic barriers to create an inclusive society. This model emphasizes equal opportunities, accessibility, and the need to challenge social prejudices. The Social model sees a wheelchair user at the bottom of some stairs and asks - Why isn’t there a ramp?

Strengths of the Social Model:

  • Emphasizes that disability is not solely an individual's problem but is shaped by societal attitudes and structures.

  • Advocates for changes in society to ensure inclusivity, accessibility, and equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

  • Fosters a sense of empowerment by emphasizing the capabilities and rights of individuals with disabilities.

  • Views disability as a human rights issue and advocates for the rights, dignity, and autonomy of individuals with disabilities.

  • Challenges stereotypes by highlighting the social construction of disability.

  • Encourages broader societal change rather than individualized solutions.

  • Works toward creating an inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of ability.

  • Considers how disability intersects with other aspects of identity, such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

  • Encourages collective efforts to create a more inclusive and accessible society.

  • Recognizes that everyone benefits from a more inclusive environment.

  • Advocates for designing environments, products, and services that are accessible to everyone, regardless of ability.

  • Recognizes the importance of systemic changes in education, employment, and public spaces to ensure inclusivity.

  • Aligns with broader social justice movements seeking equity for all.

Weaknesses of the Social Model

  • The Social Model may oversimplify the varied experiences within the disabled community by primarily framing disability as a result of external barriers.

  • Can exclude people who are sick, chronically ill and housebound.

  • In some cases, efforts to create social change may be perceived as tokenistic without significantly impacting the lives of individuals with disabilities.

  • While promoting independence is positive, there's a risk of idealising complete independence without acknowledging the diversity of support needs among disabled people.

It's important to note that while these points highlight criticisms, the Social Model has been influential in shaping a more inclusive and rights-based perspective on disability. Ongoing discussions in the field aim to refine and improve the model for a more comprehensive understanding of disability.


In reality, the Medical Model and the Social Model aren't mutually exclusive. Many argue for a more balanced approach that integrates the strengths of both models. This means recognising and addressing individual conditions while actively working to eliminate societal barriers. It also means supporting disabled people long-term with their health. Whether that be long-term therapy for mental health or long-term therapies for physical health. Taking a holistic approach, recognising that all disabled people even those with the same condition are unique and need individual care. Individual life-long care that too many disabled people currently don’t have.

In an ideal world the medical model would be solely used by medical professionals but many disabled people will tell you that they are viewed as a medical curiosity, so much so that strangers sometimes will ask a disabled person what their medical condition is before even knowing their name. The social model recognises that disabled people have a medical condition but they’re also disabled by the world. Whether that's through lack of accessibility, hostile attitudes, or a crumbling social care system. These outside factors can be incredibly disabling and whether hopeful or frustrating these outside factors could also be fixed if society would see disabled people as fully functioning humans with unique diverse lives, instead of purely a medical diagnosis or a juicy story.

The way we think about disability is ever-changing and growing. It's crucial to recognise the importance of collaboration, nothing about us without us. Let disabled people lead the conversations and recognise that disabled people are not a monolith. Disabled people will all have individual preferences and ideas and what feels right for them. The most important thing is that disabled people are just that, people. People who deserve the same rights and access to the world as everyone else does and people who deserve the same right to medical privacy as everyone else has.

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A large group of Sociability community members at the Naidex Sociability Social
A large group of Sociability community members at the Naidex Sociability Social
A large group of Sociability community members at the Naidex Sociability Social
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Jennie and a group of Sociability community members taking a break in a cafe
Jennie and a group of Sociability community members taking a break in a cafe
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