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Brave Spaces

Exploring the Medical & Social Models of Disability

January 25th, 2024


For Everyone

At AutismBC, it’s important to us that we create safe, welcoming spaces for members of the autistic community to take part in brave conversations on subjects that aren’t always easy to talk about. One of these subjects is around the medical and social models of disability. 

The medical model of disability focuses on what people with disabilities are unable to do as a result of their physical or developmental challenges. This model emphasizes that an individual’s challenges and lack of ability are the main reasons for them being less able. Very often, people involved in the healthcare sector look at and refer to disability through a medical lens. This is especially true for doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists who diagnose individuals. A lot of the time when we go online to Google what certain disabilities are, the information we come across is based on the medical model of disability.


person looking at the computer looking puzzled
A lot of the time when we go online to Google what certain disabilities are, the information we come across is based on the medical model of disability.
The information we come across online is often based on the Medical Model of Disability.


The social model of disability focuses on the societal barriers that people with disabilities face, as well as how to address these barriers to make communities more accessible, inclusive, and welcoming for everyone. It emphasizes that these barriers are in large part what makes people less able, as well as pointing out the responsibility we have collectively as a society to break down those barriers. Many people who identify as living with a disability, their family members and advocates prefer to view, as well as speak about disabilities through a social lens. The social model is based on the belief that it’s not individuals who have to change, but society that has to do so. 


a crowd of people walking in different directions
“The social model is based on the belief that it’s not individuals who have to change, but society that has to do so.”


Whether people adopt the views of medical and social models of disability can be based on ideological beliefs, sources of information, and cultural attitudes. It’s important to remember that both models have relevance when we talk about disability. For instance, the medical model is often used when the provincial and federal government is determining if individuals with disabilities qualify for specific funding or services. The model provides social workers with a checklist of medical criteria for them to be able to judge how much support each individual who applies for disability assistance requires. At the same time, it’s important to remember that a set of medical qualifiers doesn’t give the full picture of who a person is and what their needs are. The social model focuses on the individual and which specific roadblocks are in their path that make them less able. It’s also important to remember that just because a person doesn’t hit those specific criteria marks that the government sets out to determine if they need support, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a disability. The medical model is very individual based, in terms of being able to pinpoint each individual’s particular disabilities and needs. In contrast, the social model puts more emphasis on providing collective support to assist people in being able to overcome some aspects of their disabilities. Another thing to consider is that disabled people’s capabilities, as well as their challenges, can and almost certainly will change over time. This is why it’s crucial to balance both models when we talk about disabled people and their potential.  

Healthcare professionals provide guidance to disabled people to help them determine what tools they need to best tackle the challenges they face (i.e., one-on-one support, therapies, medication, life skills training, etc.) At the same time, it’s really important to remember that it’s the individuals who have a lived experience with a disability, as well as the people in their personal networks, who are the experts about what their challenges and needs are. Also, the needs of each person are different and require individualized support.

In all this, we must remember an extremely strongly felt motto by members of the disability community of “nothing about us, without us.” This means that decisions made about the lives of disabled people should be made with their voices and lived experiences leading the discussion, as well as the making of individual choices that will affect them. Regardless of which of the models they may view disability from, professionals, individuals with a lived experience, and the people in their personal networks can work well together in making these pivotal life choices. What matters is that we all take the time to learn about, as well as explore both the social and medical models (as well as other models of disability). Then we’ll be able to make our informed judgments on each model and move forward from there.   



To learn more from other perspectives:  

Equity: What Model Should We Use When We Talk About Autism? Rebekah Kintzinger, pg 32-39,  
How do we view disability?! A closer look! 

The Other Autism Podcast:-the-medical-versus-social-models-of-autism

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