This week I was talking to a friend online (as I often do these days) and we were discussing the different models of disability. The changing model of disability has always been a really interesting concept to me, not only because it legitimizes and makes concrete some of the more abstract concepts that I struggle with, but also because it creates a common language that the disability community can use in academic discussions. Like, everyone with (and probably without) a disability knows how icky it feels to be pitied, but being fluent in the different models of disability can help to explain the reasons for that ickiness.
Since the advent of the disability rights movement, scholars and activists have evolved in the ways we view and discuss disability as a concept. A model is a basic framework that couches disability in terms that are more easy to understand. As society changes in the way it considers disability (and the rights that it recognizes in disabled people), that model changes. However, sometimes the models that we use to discuss disability differ depending on what facet of disability we want to discuss, or what our role is in the discussion. For example, it makes sense in a professional context for a doctor to subscribe to the medical model of disability when determining treatment options for a disabled patient. However, it has become increasingly less acceptable for the medical model to be used outside of the medical context.
Below I’ve listed the basic idea of and examples for each model. I also have a simple picture for each one, illustrating in very simple terms what it might look like in the real world (and illustrating why I am in law school not art school). A lot of these models overlap and pretty much anywhere you look you can find a different, more nuanced take on what model is the best or most acceptable to use. I tried to include all of that in the list but probably did not do a great job at being impartial. You can only be told you were cursed with a disability because you’re spiritually impure so many times before you start to think of that model poorly, you know?
1. The Moral Model
What it is: The moral model espoused the idea that someone’s disability was a reflection of their sinfulness or was some kind of divine punishment. This is one of the oldest models and is not as outwardly spoken of today. However, we can still see traces of this in situations where families hide a disabled family member away out of shame, and in the social and systemic tendency to ostracize people with disabilities today.
Examples: Eugenics, almost any villain who is physically or mentally disabled, those people who say that negative feelings like anger will give you cancer
2. The Tragedy Model
What it is: Related to the moral model, the tragedy model is one of pity. It tells society that people with disabilities should be looked at with sorrow and need to be taken care of. Although it is less openly hostile than the moral model, the tragedy model is still problematic because it pushes people with disabilities to a lower social level than the rest of society and assumes that the lives of people with disabilities are much worse than the average life. Also prevalent in this type of model is the idea that people with disabilities can overcome their disability through endurance, resilience, and piety.
Examples: Disabled characters who you are supposed to feel sorry for, most charities, some religions
3. The Economic Model
What it is: The economic model became more prevalent with the advent of welfare. Once people with disabilities began to be supported by social programs, it created a shift in how disabled people were considered compared to the rest of society. In strictly monetary terms, the value of the life of someone with the disability was much higher if they could contribute to the economy. This model is not respectful of the lives of people with disabilities and couches the concept of disability in purely capitalistic terms.
Examples: Disability benefit questionnaires, the weird fixation that the government seems to have with Medicaid fraud
4. The Medical Model
What it is: The medical model is the disability model that has been most prevalent throughout most of our Lives most of the lives of the people reading this post. Essentially, the medical model considers disability in primarily medical terms (no duh, right?). This is harmful because it makes medical practitioners the gatekeepers of disability benefits and even of the disabled identity. If someone is difficult to diagnose, the problem here is amplified. More problematically, the medical model puts the problem on the person with the disability, not the society they live in. This makes the concept of disability much more ethereal and difficult to pin down, especially with the advent of technologies that mitigate the effects of certain disabilities. Within the medical model, disability is always a flaw that needs to be eliminated and not a manageable way of life. For many people with incurable conditions—myself included—this puts us in a difficult space because one’s identity as a disabled person shouldn’t exist; it only does because of the failure of the medical community.
Examples: Disproportionate efforts to cure a disability that can be lived with, disability-first language, discussion of disability as a disease
5. The Social Model
What it is: The social model of disability was a giant leap forward in disability theory. Instead of the medical model, which made disability into a problem for medicine to solve, the social model considered disability as a manageable way of life. The social model contributed to universal design in architecture, web design, and other fields, Ultimately making the world a more accessible place for everyone, regardless of whether or not they identify as disabled. Basically, the social model says that people with disabilities should be allowed a full place in society and if society cannot accommodate their disability, then society needs to change. Thus, if a building has steps, a person should not be expected to buy a wheelchair that can go up steps, but the building should be altered to allow people in wheelchairs to enter it. The social model of disability also strengthened the use of people-first language. Does anybody else cringe when you hear someone say something like “Down syndrome baby” rather than “baby with Down syndrome”? The social model changed the language norms surrounding disability so that a person’s humanity was listed first.
Examples: The Americans with Disabilities Act, community-based housing, accessibility guidelines, people-first language
6. The Identity Model
What it is: Like the social model, the identity model sees disability as socially constructed. However, the identity model does not emphasize people-first language. Within the identity model, disability should not be something to be ashamed of, nor should it be put as secondary to membership in a more legitimate identity group. With the identity model, disability pride was born and disability culture began to be recognized.
Examples: This blog