Reframing Disability

Towards a Social Model of Disability

The following video is a short but powerful description of the difference between "impairment" and "Disability" through the lens of the social model.

Picture of stramps, stairs with ramps integrated in them

Most of us are familiar with the idea of disability as deficiency, as something that ought to be fixed or cured, or prosthetically improved. Though medical intervention can be a factor in a person’s path to success what we are forgetting when we ascribe to this perspective is that more often than not if we make a change in the environment, the attitude, the systems and practices in society a person with an impairment may not even be disabled.

If we design environments to include people with impairments from the outset then we can eradicate disabling situations. Disability Studies calls this the Social Model of Disability, in which we locate disability in the environment and promote the transformation of society so that inclusion becomes our goal.

Comparing the Medical and Social Model

Medical Model of Disability Social/Interactional Model
Disability is a deficiency or abnormality Disability is a difference
Being disabled is negative Being disabled, in itself, is neutral
Disability resides in the individual

Disability derives from interaction between individual and society

The remedy for disability-related problems is cure or normalization of the individual The remedy for disability-related problems is a change in the interaction between the individual and society
The agent of remedy is the professional who affects the arrangements between the individual and society The agent of remedy can be the individual, an advocate, or anyone who affects the arrangements between the individual and society.
Source: Carol J. Gill, Chicago Institute of Disability Research

How to move forward

Brick wall with arrow going over, under and then breakign through it.

This applies not only to visible disabilities and physical environments but to invisible impairments and campus environments. So instead of thinking about individual access problems that people face we begin to think about the barriers that there are in the classroom, in residence or as students receive services. We can think about the ways in which we can reduce barriers to what we are providing. A few examples are listed below.

  • Print disabilities like dyslexia, vision impairment and rheumatoid arthritis all benefit from digitized texts/accessible on-line texts  that can be manipulated with adaptive technologies that read aloud to the student and enable students with mobility and coordination difficulties to carry their texts on a USB instead of in a backpack.
  • Attention difficulties like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, some mental health conditions, the effects of medication or chronic pain all benefit from a classroom where teaching is differentiated during the class and notes are made available. Recording lectures allows these students to return to sections of the class that they missed. Information provided in multiple formats (website, in person, by email, on the phone) allows these students to pick their best strategy for communication.
  • Offering built-in extended time to manage meetings, communications or exams can be key in removing barriers.  Students with ADHD, Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Mental Health conditions, or coordination and mobility impairments, can experience barriers when demonstrating skills and competencies if tight time constraints are imposed.  Being flexible with time limits and expectations, when time management of itself is not a competency which is being evaluated, makes the classroom experience inclusive instead of exclusionary.

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