Models of Disability

Models of Disability

Today I had planned to attend an OT conference, this took a fair amount of planning and team work since I can’t drive and don’t often feel well enough to be far from home alone.

Unfortunately since life happens everything fell apart at the last-minute. I don’t get to attend the conference so I’m using the non-experience as a blog topic.As part of OT training and my personal research we look into various models of disability, there are two main ones that I’d like to talk about today. The medical model and the social model.

The Medical Model of Disability

The medical model basically defines disability as a result of a physical condition, disability is a characteristic of an individual that negatively impacts their quality of life. In my case I am disabled because my Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Postural Tachycardia make it difficult to walk or complete other daily activities.

With the medical model the ‘problem’ rest solely with the disabled person. My needing a wheelchair isn’t anyone elses problem. It is implied that my quality of life could be improved by ‘fixing’ me. Disability in this case is inherently a bad thing.

Hospitals and other healthcare providers usually work in the medical model because their jobs involve fixing or managing physical conditions, they are hardwired to help people live up to the ideals of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’.

Sounds fairly sensible at face value right? being wonky adversely affects my life. End of story..

Not quite. What if I told you that with the right environment, being in a wheelchair actually improves my quality of life by reducing pain and fatigue and by keeping me conscious? What if I told you that my life experiences have led me to be extra creative or that I’ve made great friends through disability support groups, my wonky life actually has benefits.

The Social Model of Disability 1

The social model was developed by disabled people. Simply put disability is caused by the way society is laid out rather than any one individuals characteristics 2 .

Within the social model people like myself are acknowledged to have an impairment or difference, (a long-term physical, mental or sensory limitation like being rubbish at walking) but with the right environment this doesn’t have to cause problems. A wheelchair user, in a wheelchair friendly environment can potentially function just as well as someone without the wheelchair. The issue here is that most environments aren’t designed with impaired people in mind.

The social model is all about promoting inclusivity, by removing accessibility barriers we are making sure that everyone can thrive within society. Disability occurs when these barriers prevent people from being independent, or from accessing a service at all.

Unlike most healthcare professions, Occupational Therapy works well with either model of disability. My placement with Limitless Travel has been all about removing barriers to travel and I’ve spent a lot of time researching universal design so I know it is possible to create environments that meet the needs of everyone. Unfortunately, most of the time this just doesn’t happen.

As a result of society being largely inaccessible I am a 25-year-old woman who cannot get to work (or anywhere else) without her mum. Luckily my mum is very accommodating of this fact but on the rare occasions mum cannot leap to my aid I am pretty much stuck at home, living vicariously through the internet.

Public transport is a nightmare for me. Busses make you face backwards when travelling in a wheelchair, this causes me horrible motion sickness. To make matters worse I’m looking right at all of the other passengers, I almost feel like I should be giving a speech.

Trains can be even worse, there is no spontaneity, you have to book in advance to have any chance of finding a ramp at the other end. Most of the London underground system is totally inaccessible and if you’re lucky enough to actually have a designated wheelchair space it’s almost always right next to the toilet. Lovely.

Mix in a little anxiety and a lot of dyspraxia and I could quite easily end up semiconscious in completely the wrong end of the country.

I have often been asked what the hardest part about my life with Ehlers Danlos is.. Dislocations? Chronic pain? needing a wheelchair? Fatigue so severe I can’t string a sentence together?

I often answer fatigue I’m not sure that’s the right answer.

The hardest part is probably needing help.

Not all help. Humans are social creatures and we all need help from time to time, but needing help with things that should be easy is often pretty sucky.

Anyway, I hope some of this has been useful or informative. As always, questions and comments are welcome.


Reference List

Beaudry J-S. Beyond (Models of) Disability? JMPHIL. 2016;41(2):210-228. doi: 10.1093/jmp/jhv063
Social Model of Disability. Scope. Accessed 2017.

3 thoughts on “Models of Disability

  1. I love the social model of disability, but can understand the need for the medical one too. From my experience the majority of the public see disability in the medical model, which is a shame as it impacts on the quality of life of those with a disability. This then becomes an additional barrier to the disabled person, because of cause, we don’t have enough of those already! I always answer that fatigue is the worst part of EDS, but I think asking for help is equally as hard, I’d never even considered that aspect before! Xx

    Tania | When Tania Talks

    1. We are so much alike lol! I totally agree, there’s room for the medical model in healthcare but I think it should stop there! 😀

  2. Yes! All of this! xxx Being dis abled by society and the environment outside our home and thus needing help (being re-enabled) just to exist is HUGE…and the vast majority of us would choose to not want, need or have to ask for that help but rather a world that exists to enable us all to use our own abilities and adaptations to live freely and safely. We can but dream, campaign and talk openly about such a world…and hope. <3

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