Social vs Medical Model of Disability

My favorite lens to look at disability through is the social/medical model of disability. I have recently been reminded that these models aren’t as universally known as I imagine them to be (I mean, I’VE known for years, so surely everyone else knows too, right? Yeah, that’s not how it works) so I just want to talk about it.

So, what does “social model of disability” and “medical model of disability” mean, anyway? In simple terms, the medical model of disability is the idea that disability is something wrong with the disabled person, and the correct solution is medical interventions to fix them. The social model of disability is the idea that disability is something wrong with society, and the correct solution is ensuring accessibility for everyone.

I have met/encountered people who fell hard on both sides of that divide. Personally, I used to be pretty firmly in the social model camp but now I think they both have their uses and their truths. 

Disability is a BROAD category. There are many ways and many reasons to be disabled, and so it seems to just make sense that there need to be a variety of solutions and responses to disability. Sometimes that will look like accessibility – ramps, mobility devices, communication devices, heck even just simple awareness that disabled people exist and are ok. 

Other times it will look like medical interventions. It can look like trying to fix what’s wrong. I firmly believe that it’s ok to be disabled. That disability doesn’t make you have less worth as a person, that the role of society is to take care of each other, INCLUDING those with disabilities. 

I also firmly believe that if you have a disability/are disabled in some way, it is ok to want to be better. It’s ok to seek out treatments and it’s ok to want a cure. 

I firmly believe that both of these concepts can coincide. That they do not have to contradict each other and it’s up to each individual to navigate what the right answer is for THEM. 

For me, specifically in terms of autism, I don’t want a cure. I have spoken about this a lot. I want accessibility, I want support, I want a world that accepts me the way that I am instead of demanding that I be someone else. Since my difference is fundamentally about how my brain works, “curing” me would mean turning me into someone else. The “me” who is writing this would no longer exist, and in essence be dead. Instead there would be some other person. I’m not interested in that.

But despite the accusations people have levelled my way, I am still in favor of treatment and help. I mean, not ALL treatment (Just Say No to ABA), but I do need help. 

I ran into a reddit post a while back that I think really highlighted this whole issue. A person with dwarfism talked about a limb-lengthening surgery that can be used to “fix” dwarfism, except that while it does lengthen one’s limbs it’s a very intense surgery that often comes with any number of negative side effects. Apparently in Italy, limb-lengthening is simply considered standard treatment for people with dwarfism, with no real thought given to the idea that maybe it isn’t the best solution for everyone. 

I want to highlight one particular part they ended their post with:

“What I did need was my legs straightened, and spinal decompression surgery – to mitigate pain and reduce numbness in my legs. Limb lengthening to me just seems like a barbaric, extreme measure to act as a band-aid for a society that refuses to be accessible or accepting.”

Here they advocate for both medical interventions AND social supports. For finding the balance between the two. 

Another aspect of this is because I believe we need both, and because I believe that society exists for people to support each other, social supports need to be socially implemented. It’s on all of us, not just disabled people, to ensure accessibility. This gets into a post I wrote ages ago about my own exploration of the concept of disability rights being civil rights, specifically centered around the idea of businesses with signs saying “disabled entrance in rear.” Or rather, about how upsetting all of that was. Basically, every single time I tried to talk to people about it, they were far more interested in EXPLAINING to me about how it just isn’t that SIMPLE and I need to UNDERSTAND and my question wasn’t fair and and and and and somehow my attempt to say “hey, maybe the concept of most people getting the main entrance but disabled people only able to enter from the rear isn’t great” was just never heard. Like, people weren’t even listening to me enough to disagree with me – they just weren’t listening AT ALL. It was a bad time.

I wonder if things have changed enough since then for the conversation to be possible. I’m honestly a little afraid to check. Last time was just so unpleasant. Still, maybe I’ll try at some point. I wonder if fb still does polls. Or maybe use google forms? Hrm. ANYWAY. 

This post has wandered around a fair amount. This is honestly mostly an exploration of my thoughts on the matter, plus just yet another person shouting about these disability models into the void in the hopes that just a few more people will hear. 

1 Comment

Filed under issue, opinion, ramble

One response to “Social vs Medical Model of Disability

  1. Yes! I so agree with this post (as rambly as you may feel it to have been). Regarding (my) autism (and most other autistics, I admit), I definitely feel the social model of disability works best. But autism isn’t the only disability out there.

    I take medication for my depression (and yes, that’s a disability) and my psoriatic arthritis. I have a friend who takes meds for their epilepsy. My father and a cousin have meds for their diabetes. It definitely isn’t a “one size fits all” approach.

    Especially for disabilities with more complex aspects. To take one example, photo-sensitive epilepsy. People with that likely need medication, but they also need society to reduce and/or not use flashing lights which will send them into seizures. The latter being a social model of disability issue, and the former being medical model. Both are needed.

    Plus, ramps and other physical forms of disability access! For example, ramps don’t only help those with physical disabilities, though that’s the major reason they exist. They help parents with strollers. They help people who may be carrying awkward or heavy items, who are all too likely to trip on stairs. (Can I just add here how hard it is to walk up the stairs to my apartment with groceries?)

    And the medical model can help with pain, and physical issues that are problematic through to dangerous, in ways that the social model can’t. Both models have their strengths and weaknesses, depending on what disability/type of disability one has. Some disabilities can be helped best with one and not the other, and others need some amount of both.

    (But they all need societal understanding that those with disabilities are just as human and have just as much right as anyone else to have the best quality of life possible.)

    Excellent post, and thank you for pointing out the nuanced nature of this issue.