Social Model

The Social Model of Disability

Disability Wales aims to promote the understanding, adoption and implementation of the Social Model of Disability throughout Wales

  • What disabled people in Wales say about the Social Model
  • The Medical and Social Models of Disability
  • Definition of ‘disability’
  • Examples of how society could change to allow disabled people to participate equally

What disabled people in Wales say about the Social Model

The Social Model of Disability literally saved my life; after I understood what it was about it was my lifeline – it freed me up to be who I am

It puts the onus back on society to remove the barriers

It’s empowering; I can direct my energies into improving my quality of life.

The Medical and Social Models of Disability

Disabled people generally have fewer opportunities and a lower quality of life than non-disabled people. There are two different ways of explaining what causes this disadvantage: the Medical Model of Disability and the Social Model of Disability.

The Medical Model of Disability:

Disabled people not joining in society is seen as a direct result of having an impairment and not as the result of features of our society which can be changed.

Society focuses on ‘compensating’ people with impairments for what is ‘wrong’ with their bodies.

This is done through ‘special’ welfare benefits and providing segregated ‘special’ services.

It shapes the way disabled people think about themselves. Many disabled people internalise the negative message that all disabled people’s problems stem from not having ‘normal’ bodies. We think it’s our fault that we can’t be active, or contribute to our communities.

This internalised oppression can make disabled people less likely to challenge their exclusion from mainstream society.

The Social Model of Disability: 

The Social Model of Disability makes the important difference between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’.

The Social Model has been worked out by disabled people themselves. Our experiences have shown us that in reality most of the problems we face are caused by the way society is organised.

Our impairments or bodies are not the problem. Social barriers are the main cause of our problems.

These barriers include people’s attitudes to disability, and physical and organisational barriers.

Examples of how society could change to allow disabled people to participate equally:

Table of Medical Problem related to Social Model Solution
Medical model problem Social model solution
Painful hands, unable to open jars, doors Better designed lids, automatic doors
Difficulty in standing for long periods More seats in public places
“Housebound” or “Confined to a wheelchair” Badly designed buildings – need ramps and lifts in all buildings, also accessible transport/parking spaces
Other people won’t give you a job because they think you couldn’t do it Educate people to look at disabled people’s knowledge and skills rather than looking for problems
Can’t hear or see Recognition and use of sign language and Braille/raised letters.

In the Medical Model, the disabled person is placed at the centre of the “problem”. Considered “defective” or “not normal”, disabled people are often described or believed to be:

  • unable to make decisions
  • in need of a doctor or a cure
  • always in need of help, sympathy and charity
  • can never be equal to a non-disabled person

Much of this language is negative and does not describe the experience of disabled people.

The Social Model is an alternate way of understanding access issues and social exclusion and sees the problem as a “disabling world”. The Social Model explores why our society does not treat all its members as equal.

Definition of ‘disability’


An injury, illness, or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a long-term effect on physical appearance and / or limitation of function within the individual that differs from the commonplace.


The loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to social and environmental barriers.

Disability is shown as being caused by ‘barriers’ or elements of social organisation which take no or little account of people who have impairments.

Society is shown to disable people who have impairments because the way it has been set up prevents us from taking part in everyday life.

It follows that if disabled people are to be able to join in mainstream society, the way society is organised must be changed.

Removing the barriers which exclude (and disable) people who have impairments can bring about this change.

Disability Wales is campaigning and working to remove all disabling barriers in Wales.


You can find out more about the Social Model, including language and how it can be used by downloading our toolkit.

Social Model of Disability Toolkit (PDF)

Social Model of Disability Toolkit (Word)

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