6 Theoretical Models of Disability

In my last post Basic Disability Concepts, I mentioned that we all need a perspective check when we design websites and start thinking about people with disabilities. Turns out that there are many different theoretical models that have been proposed on this very topic of how we perceive disabilities! I’ve encountered a couple of these before, thanks to Sarah Horton’s and Whitney Quesenbery’s book A Web for Everyone (Amazon).

The models I cover in this post:

  1. medical,
  2. social,
  3. economic,
  4. functional solutions,
  5. social identity, and
  6. charity.

There are more than 6 models that have been theorized, but I only offer them a mention, and provide resources at the end to get you started on your own research.

Medical

The medical model (perspective) views disability as a medically-diagnosed biological problem due to genetic disorders, disease, trauma, or other health conditions. Law leans this definition to critically evaluate whether a person is impaired “enough” to receive benefits or accommodation. The person has a problem that needs to be cured or fixed.

Strengths:

  • emphasizes the biological
  • offers criteria for medical treatment and legal evaluation
  • belief that a compassionate society will invest in health care and services to support disabilities

Weaknesses:

  • overlooks impact of design decisions (it’s the person’s problem, not the environment)
  • stigmatizes people as different or second-class citizens
  • can create narrow and exclusive definitions
  • dehumanizing if a person has to prove their disability

Social

The social model (perspective) views disability as a condition created by bad design. Society’s ecosystem institutes barriers for people. It’s in response to the medical model, and rallies for change in the culture and ideology of society to be more inclusive.

Strengths:

  • emphasizes the human right to participate in society
  • removes stigma
  • inspires creative design

Weaknesses:

  • de-emphasizes biological reality of a disability
  • strips disability from a person’s identity

Economic

The economic model (perspective) views disability as the inability of a person to work and contribute to society. It’s related to the Charity/Tragedy model.

Strength:

  • emphasizes the need for economic support or accommodation

Weaknesses:

  • disabled become stigmatized as needy
  • narrow definition may deny help to a person who needs it but doesn’t meet qualifications

Functional Solutions

The functional solutions model (perspective) views disability as problem to be solved. Specifically, it seeks to overcome physical limitations with technology. It cares less about the social or political nuances, but rather strives for innovation as its motivation. Accessibility professionals often live in this space.

Strengths:

  • meets people where they are
  • service-based
  • focused on solutions
  • real-world approach

Weaknesses:

  • myopic (doesn’t address broader issues)
  • misses opportunities of social change

Social Identity / Cultural Affiliation

The social identity or cultural affiliation model (perspective) views disability as a community. People who identify with a particular group or culture (e.g. deaf culture) become more involved with that culture and embrace their disability as part of their identity.

Strengths:

  • disability is accepted and even a point of pride
  • groups find political strength to advocate for change

Weaknesses:

  • sense of exclusion when a person doesn’t fit the mold or expectation of the group
  • alienation from society when involved with a specific group

Charity/Tragedy

The charity or tragedy model (perspective) views disability as tragic, unfortunate, or inspirational. When this perspective becomes an attitude, it can become offensive to people with disabilities.

Strength:

  • inspires fundraisers, projects, assistance, and intervention for people with disabilities

Weaknesses:

  • creates an unhealthy social relationship or hierarchy
  • condescending or dehumanizing
  • perpetuates the lie that people with disabilities are objects of inspiration (inspirational porn)
  • short-term

Other Models

In addition to the models I’ve dissected in this post, there were other honorable mentions in the CPACC coursework I’m working through; all of which have their own merits and pitfalls.

  • Affirmation: similar to the social identity model, it views disability as an chance to affirm one’s identity and celebrate that part of self;
  • Sociopolitical: views disability needs as a human right;
  • Religious/moral: views disability as an act of God to punish or teach;
  • Expert/professional: a variation of the medical model, it views disability as a condition to be treated or managed by experts;
  • Rehabilitation: a variation of the medical model, it views disability as a condition to be treated be therapy and rehabilitation;

Are you familiar with any other models that haven’t been mentioned here?

Where Do You Stand?

I don’t know about you, but all these models have given me a lot to think about, challenging my own perspective and world view. The variety of definitions have offered some confirmation on thoughts I’ve had. In contrast, they’ve pointed out some of my own fault in thinking about myself and others.

In order to do the work of advocating for people with disabilities and developing websites with accessibility in mind, we need to understand our own point of view. Believe it or not, our work is colored by our current perspective. Before we can have conversations with people with disabilities, we need to evaluate where we stand and what language we use.

What does “disability” mean to you?

Resources I Found Helpful

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