Models of Disability
Written by: Katie Lawliss, Psy.D.
The term disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability (1). This definition is intended for use in the legal world. However, the ADA definition of disability is what most people think of when they hear the word disability. After exploring the models of disability, there may be a better way to define disability.
A model of disability means a way of conceptualizing disabilities. While there are many models of disability, there are three main models of disability that are used today. These include the Medical Model, Functional Model, and Social Model.
The Medical Model of disability describes disability as a consequence of a health condition, disease, or caused by trauma that disrupts a person’s wellbeing. In other words, the Medical Model views disability as a defect within an individual that needs to be cured or fixed in order to have a high quality of life. The medical model considers the concept of an average person and determines that deviations from the “average person” indicate a need for correction. This model therefore assumes that disability is inherently negative.
The Functional Model of disability also conceptualizes disability as an impairment or deficit and focuses on the functional limitations. The view is that a disability itself limits the person’s functioning or ability to perform functional activities. The functional and medical models have some in common, mainly that the disability is viewed as something to fix about the person rather than look at systematic, cultural, and situational influences that impact functional limitations. The functional model focuses less on the underlying condition and instead focuses on restoring functional capacity.
Finally, the third primary model of disability is the Social Model. The Social Model focuses on the barriers that disabled people face rather than the condition leading to impairment. This model states that the person’s activities are limited by the environmental conditions rather than the underlying condition itself. In this case disability is defined as “the loss of limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers” (Barnes, 1991). The Social Model depathologizes disability by focusing on systematic and environmental concerns that lead to prejudice and discrimination, which truly causes disability.
Is it important for people to consider which model of disability they see the world from, and it could be a perspective that integrates aspects of the various models of disability. Historically, psychology has mainly aligned itself with the Medical Model of disability, with some theoretical approaches leaning more towards the Functional Model. However, more recently as the field becomes more aware of its biases and prejudice, mental health practitioners are gaining a better understanding of the Social Model of disability which is important to the therapeutic relationship and therapy as a whole.
If you are a person with a disability, consider how these models have affected your wellbeing and which you align with. This can be an important topic to discuss with a therapist to gain a better understanding of how you view yourself and the world around you. I hope this language allows you to gain insight into your life and disability. If you are not someone with a disability, consider how your understanding of disability affects how you interact with the world and people with disabilities. While you may be currently able bodied, that may change over time and gaining insight into your beliefs about disability can be instrumental in your wellbeing going forward in life.
Evans, N. J., Broido, E. M., Brown, K. R., & Wilke, A. K. (2017). Disability in higher education: A social justice approach. Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.