Part 2: Models of Disability

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • articulate and apply the definitions of different models for understanding disability.

Since disability is such a complex concept, we must necessarily have multiple lenses with which we can examine various aspects of it. These lenses are called “models.” While we can talk about them individually, in reality the issues focused on in each model work together in order to present a complete understanding of disability. The following are examples of different models we can use.

Medical Model

The medical model looks at disability from the viewpoint of impairments. It considers it a condition to be diagnosed, which can be helpful if a person with a disability is seeking medical help. Unfortunately, the medical model has led to a focus on disability as something to be cured.

Social Model

The social model starts from the premise that “people are disabled not by medical conditions but by environments, attitudes, and systems that create barriers” (Ladau). For someone who is deaf, for instance, the medical model would focus on the causes and potential cures, but the social model considers that the person is disabled more by a society that does not accommodate those with hearing loss – for example, the lack of normalizing the use of closed captioning – rather than the physical state of being unable to hear.

Economic Model

The economic model focuses on the belief that a person’ worth is tied to their productivity. If a person with a disability is unable to work, then this model questions society’s view of their contribution as a whole.

Human Rights Model

The human rights model is concerned with people with disabilities being able to exercise their rights, especially in the legal process.

Religious Model

In the religious model, disability is viewed as either a result of sin, thus a punishment for something an individual has done wrong, or a blessing used to test the faithful. It is sometimes closely related with the charity model, which views people with disabilities as objects of pity and, thus, a means to demonstrate goodness by providing them with charity.

Cultural Model

This book’s focus on disability heritage tends to explore disability mostly from the cultural model. Since it centers disability “as a culture with a rich history and shared identity among disabled people, this model embraces the experience of disability and how it shapes people” (Ladau). The act of uncovering and emphasizing disability heritage reveals the experiences of people with disability.

Activity 3.2

  • For each of the following scenarios, identify the model or models of disability above that it includes or identify another model not mentioned:
    • A person who uses a wheelchair arrives at a restaurant. There is no ramp to allow access inside. The second restaurant they try has an accessible entrance, but it is around the back of the building through an alley next to the dumpster.
    • The local church advertises that the Special Olympics will be the recipient of the funds raised by their recent charity event.
    • The newest leg prosthetic is lauded for looking exactly like a human leg.
    • A person diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder has difficulty finding a job that will provide necessary accommodations.
    • A social media challenge encourages people to post the “scariest” photos of people with disabilities.


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