What is disability?

It is important to understand that disability is understood differently around the world. I am UK-based and this website will look at the UK definition of disability and the models of disability that are preferred in the UK.

According to the UK government:

You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.

Substantial is defined as, more than minor or trivial and long term is defined as, 12 months or more.

This definition of disability means that a person's diagnosis or the name of their condition is not the most important thing. What is important is the negative effect that the impairment (which does not even have to be a diagnosed condition) is having on that person's ability to live their lives.

Models of disability

There are many models of disability. These models attempt to explain how society views, understands and treats disability and disabled people. Of course, no one model can fully achieve this and it may not be necessary for most people to have a deep understanding of each model. So we will only look at three models which I believe are worth understanding in the context of digital accessibility.

Charity model

The charity model of disability sees disability as a tragedy and disabled people as objects of pity. Those people who are fortunate to be normal should feel sorry for disabled people and give them money and/or support to make their lives more bearable.

What is wrong with the charity model?

In my opinion, one of the most damaging aspects of the charity model is that it views normal people as competent and knowledgable, and disabled people as the exact opposite. This results in disempowerment of disabled people, as decisions are made about them without their input. It also results in a 'them and us' view of society, where normal people have value and disabled people are worthless.

Is charity a bad thing?

There is nothing wrong with charity in itself, as long as it does not seek to disempower anybody. There are many charities that provide support, adaptations and services to disabled people in a way that is respectful and that enables the person to speak for themselves. One such example is Canine Partners Opens in new window. They train and provide assistance dogs to help people with mobility impairments to live independently. Charities can operate the social model of disability and be highly effective in their purpose.

Medical model

The medical model of disability sees disability as the result of a physical condition and disabled people as broken or sick. The focus of this model is on treating, curing and managing a person's condition to enable them to live as close to a normal life as possible.

What is wrong with the medical model?

I think there are a few problems with this model, which I will mention before going onto the positives of our health service. The medical model tends to focus purely on fixing the individual and if they can't be fixed, getting them as close to fixed as possible. This can result in endless painful treatment, pressure to use the impaired part of their body as much as possible, and a general inacceptance that it possible to live a happy life with an impairment. It also assumes that the medical practioner is the expert about a person's condition and the disabled person knows nothing. This is often far from the truth. Lived experience is always worth listening to.

I lived the medical model for two years after my spinal cord injury. I tried to walk further each day, strengthen my weak leg, increase functionality to return to normality. The result was that I was constantly in a lot of pain, exhausted to the point of not living life at all, but merely existing. I was miserable. Once I realised that I didn't have to fix my body, I was able to come to terms with my impairment and learn new ways of living a full, happy and productive life. My wheelchair, far from being an item that represents failure, has given me freedom, independence and energy.

Is medicine a bad thing?

Absolutely not! Our health service is a wonderful and necessary service that helps us when we are sick or injured. In the days, weeks and months following an injury or illness, we certainly need to know that there are skilled doctors, surgeons, nurses and specialists that will treat us and help us to manage pain. However, when it is quite clear that the situation has moved from a medical issue to a social issue, this should be recognised and support given to help the individual transition as such. There will also be a time when the individual knows more about their condition, impairment or disability than those in the medical arena. Their voice should always be listened to.

Social model

The social model of disability sees the impairment and disability as two different things. A person's impairment is not seen negatively or positively. It is a mere fact that their mind or body is different in some way from people without that impairment. Their disability arises when society creates barriers that prevent them from accessing life in the way that they are able as a result of their impairment. The focus is on the removal of barriers to access, such that the person is able to live independently and access life on equal terms.

What is good about the social model?

There are many pros to the social model. For me, the main thing is acceptance. The social model says that I am acceptable as I am, with my impairments. My life is not worth less than an abled person. My right to access places and services is no different to anyone else's. Where barriers prevent access, I have the right to challenge them and request that they are removed. My right to work is protected and any barriers that prevent me from working, must be removed.

Are there any cons to the social model?

I think there are two issues with the social model, though they are really issues with society rather than the model itself. The first is reality. In theory, barriers should be removed to enable equal access but in reality, many barriers exist in all sectors of life and work. The second issue is one of the reasons for this enduring inequality - cost. We live in a world which was historically built full of barriers. It costs money to remove barriers that already exist. However, I see the bigger issue where new places, products or services are designed. We should now be Accessible by Design. This would considerably reduce the cost of creating a barrier-free society, but the reality is, it still isn't happening. The reason for this is because our society still operates the charity and medical models and doesn't emphasise the social model enough. We are making slow progress but there is still a long way to go!