How do we define disability? Is it the inability to walk that keeps a person who uses a wheelchair from entering a building or the stairs that keep a wheelchair user from entering that building?
The social model of disability discusses that the disabling barrier is indeed the stairs and a ramp is all a wheelchair user needs for an equal footing. Unfortunately, even in this technologically-advanced contemporary world, we are still unable to accommodate facilities for the disabled due to the mindset of the medical model of disability in the orthodox society. Authorities are sometimes not mindful of the disabled and their needs when designing a particular product or infrastructure to submit to the needs of the majority.
The reason for the traditional mindset of medical model, however, may not be intentional but due to simple social norms and ignorance of a better but unpopular model of disability such as the social model of disability. This model provides a guideline which enables individuals without disabilities to understand the needs for people with disability and the proper etiquettes towards them.
As a result, many people are willing to adopt the social model and make adjustments for people with disability. However, they are not as accommodating to students with a hidden disability, or a disability that is not clearly understood.
Nevertheless, one of the key principles of this social model is that the individual is the expert on their requirements for a particular situation, and that it should be respected, regardless of whether the disability is visible or not.
2.0 DESCRIPTION OF THE MODEL
2.1 A Brief History of Social Model of Disability
The social model surfaced from the intellectual and political arguments of the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS). This network was formed after Paul Hunt, a former resident of the Lee Court Cheshire Home, who wrote to The Guardian newspaper in 1971, suggested that a consumer group of disabled residents of institutions should be formed. Hunt worked closely with Vic Finkelstein, a South African psychologist which had thorough experience as he was exiled to Britain due to his participation of anti-apartheid activities and had promising ability to further strengthen UPIAS and its ideology. UPIAS was a small, hardcore group of disabled people, inspired by Marxism, who rejected the liberal and reformist campaigns of more mainstream disability organisations such as the Disablement Income Group and the Disability Alliance. According to their policy statement, the aim of UPIAS was to replace segregated facilities with opportunities for people with impairments to participate fully in society, to live independently, to undertake productive work, and to have full control over their own lives. In 1983, Mike Oliver who joined the team quickly adopted the structural approach to understanding disability, and was the one to introduce the term “social model of disability”.
2.2 Main Concept of Social Model of Disability
Oliver accounts that the social model ‘does not deny the problem of disability but just locates it squarely within society. Thus, the social model of disability is modelled on a distinction between the terms “impairment” and “disability” where impairment is defined as long-term limitation of a person’s physical, mental or sensory function whereas disability is the restriction of activity caused by an up to date social impairments which in result forfeits them the participation in mainstream social activities.
Figure 2 demonstrates how social model shifts the blame away from people with disability and to society; the circle enclosing the individual is synonym to society whereas the barriers are;
• lack of useful education
• discrimination in employment
• inaccessible transport
• inaccessible information
• inaccessible environment
• ‘belief’ in medical model
The social model of disability focuses on changes necessary in society to remove barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people consequently enabling them to be independent and equal in society, with choices and to be in command of their own lives. The changes might be in terms of:
• Attitudes and mindset, by not underestimating or undermining the prospective quality of those with disability.
• Social support, by giving positive discrimination for the individuals for instance providing a buddy to help with the work culture for an autistic employee.
• Information, for example using suitable formats such as Braille for the blind and adaptations made with consultations to the individual with visual impairment or coverage such as explaining issues people without disability may take for granted.
• Physical structures, for example buildings with sloped access and elevators for wheelchair users
• Flexible working hours, for people with circadian rhythm sleep disorders or those who experience anxiety or in worse cases panic attacks in rush hour traffic and etc.
The social model of disability had been expanded to a wider range compassing chronic illness and into medical humanities. Disability studies enable practitioners to improve disabled people’s healthcare, which requires perspective and experiences of disabled people to address discrimination as it is a multi-disciplinary field of inquiry. Steps such as including disability studies in medical curriculum will be essential in introducing medical humanities to future doctors.
Conversely, the social model is limited in a sense as it is only academically accounted, neglecting other critical factors such as taking into account impairment as a part of life for disabled people, besides viewing disability as oppression, thus making creating a paradox error as its impossible to find non-oppressed disabled people. This social model serves as a guide for identifying limitations in the stated environment but is unfeasible due to its free utopia aims.
2.3 Terminologies Used in Social Model of Disability
According to People with Disability Australia (PWDA), there are a set of terminologies we should use when we regard people with disability since every word we use either verbally or non-verbally have a profound influence on the community attitudes both positively and negatively to their lives. If used wrongly, words will degrades or diminishes people with disability, besides spreading just imprecise stereotypes. As a result, a social model of disability is put forward by PWDA verbally and in paper.
They recommended referring ‘people with intellectual disability’ rather than ‘mentally retarded’. They encourages referring ‘people with psychosocial disability’ than using terms like ‘crazy’, ‘insane’ or ‘mad’ to those who are living with a mental illness. Other than that, we can use phrases like ‘people with Down syndrome’ instead of ‘Mongol’, to ‘people with cerebral palsy’ instead of ‘spastic’, to ‘people with autism’ instead of ‘autistic people ‘, to ‘people with ADHD’ instead of ‘hyperactive’, to ‘people with brain injury’ instead of ‘brain damaged people ‘, to ‘people with learning disability’ instead of ‘slows’ and so on.
PWDA urge the practicality of using a ‘person first language’ which indicates that we acknowledges the person first and their disability last as it unnecessary. Moreover, PWDA strongly advice against using inferior or condescending phrases to describe those with disability.