AbleismAccessibilityHealthcare IndustrySkepticism

Why the Medical Model of Disability is Harmful

Over the years, many different models for looking at the impact and experience of disability have been collated. Some of these are accurate, and others, not so much. Few models, however, inspire such burning indignation as the medical model of disability.

4 sets of different pills in blister packets, stacked on top of each otherFor those who are unaware, the medical model of disability is the view that disability originates in a physical or mental condition that is intrinsic to the individual sufferer and who thereby experiences a reduced quality of life.” (Heery and Noon 2008)

The reason this model is met with so much ire by the disabled community is because it gives society at large, a metaphorical “free-pass.” It suggests that we have lower quality of life based on our pathologies, and it doesn’t look into the impact of societal attitudes and structures on the every-day lives of individuals with disabilities.

The fact is, many disabled people feel more disabled by the attitudes and physical barriers built by non-disabled society, than the symptoms caused by their conditions.

When it becomes known that someone is disabled, there is almost immediately a loss of autonomy: people, even strangers, feel they have the right to touch you, move your body or mobility aids, and ask intrusive questions. Non-disabled people will likely never understand the terror of these experiences: When people touch you, you don’t know what they intend to do with that touch, and questions such as “can you have sex,” dehumanize us, as though we are mere objects for your fascination.

In addition, many places are not designed to be accessible for those with disabilities. Buildings are often crowded or blocked by stairs, barring entrance for those with mobility issues or in wheelchairs.

School settings often do not have the required assistance for deaf and/or blind students, making it difficult for them to learn if they’re doing it alongside hearing or sighted peers. This is obviously not an exclusive list, but is designed to initiate thought about the things that actually disable those with disabilities.

Even outside of educational institutions, society has many preconceived ideas about “disability” that they project onto us. Many people feel as though it is their job, and not ours, to decide what we can and cannot do. Yet this sort of thing is not seen as “disabling” by the wider community, simply because they believe nothing could be worse than the actual condition.

When disabled people attempt to speak up about misconstrued ideas, or to point out maltreatment, we are often treated as petulant children, and condescendingly told that we don’t know what we’re talking about. Those with disabilities are often assumed to have co-morbid conditions that they do not have. For example, someone with a physical condition is often assumed to also have intellectual or learning difficulties. This is most often not the case.

Furthermore, those who actually have intellectual and learning difficulties are often completely discounted, and painted as useless members of society. This belief is so engrained in communities, that to accuse someone of being these things, even as a “joke,” (for example the r slur.) is considered one of the most degrading things. This assumption is untrue and the harmful belief serves to degrade those with intellectual and learning disabilities, as well as facilitating further social isolation.

Along the same vein, disabled people are often told that they are essentially not worthy of life because

Silver bars that serve to restrict access to the other side

Not all the barriers we face are this obvious, but for us, they’re equally impossible to ignore.


they do not contribute to society in ways that are seen as worthwhile. Whilst I would challenge the idea that a human-being has to be productive in order to have a right to life, I would also like to challenge the idea that the joblessness in the disabled community is completely down to the pathologies of its members.

Many disabled people have the skills, drive, and ability to work, but are stonewalled at interviews, as employers make assumptions about their abilities based on misguided, non-specific notions.

Indeed, workplaces are subject to the same levels of inaccessibility as explored above. If I can’t access the workplace because of tangible or social barriers, then it is not the fault of my condition that I can’t work, but the fault of society.

So where do all these preconceived ideas come from? Why is there such resistance when increased accessibility is requested?

Honestly, there is no one answer to these questions. We do know that disabled people are often used in a voyeuristic manner, as individuals that the wider community can look on and say “well, my life is not that bad; at least I’m not disabled.”

Because of this, many people have been conditioned to believe that disability is the worst consequence of any given situation. How can one survive when their body or mind is against them? The push for greater visibility of disabled people, and the movement away from the medical model, forces people to accept the idea that disabled people can not only live rich, full lives, but also have their own intimate community, and that the non-disabled community is at fault for creating a world that disables people.

People may be scared of what a world would mean if disabled people were given equity, and fear the possible loss of a political scapegoat. It could also be the fear that in an equitable society, “the disabled people will take our jobs.” (Does this rhetoric sound familiar?)

I suppose it is always scary when a subjugated group suddenly demands the rights and inclusion that they’ve deserved all along, because the idea is always that for them to rise, somebody has to fall. This sort of sentiment is similar to that which causes the resistance of feminism; women want to be treated equally, yet many men believe that if that happened, they would become the subjugated group. In reality, it is possible to have all people on an equal plane, and bringing one group of people up, does not require demoting another. Society is not a seesaw.

The handicap symbol, an outline of a person in a wheelchair.

Wheelchair accessibility does not equal completely accessible.  People don’t seem to understand the immense diversity of disability, nor the great number of different needs it creates.

It is true, however, that the non-disabled community would have to give up one thing if forced to accept responsibility for an inaccessible society: power. If disabled people were no longer seen as less-than-human, and had equitable access to opportunities and resources, the non-disabled community would no longer be able to exercise the about of control over us as they do now.

If disabled people were seen as equals, it would no longer be acceptable to “help” a disabled person without permission. We would no longer require assistance from the non-disabled community to go shopping, get into buildings, or attend events. It would no longer be acceptable to treat us as “overgrown children.”

For people who have been conditioned to believe that we are broken, burdens to society, these thoughts may evoke disgust, or even fear. People would also be required to consider how their attitudes and actions play into the creation of disability in their community.

Because of this, the focus remains on disabled people being broken. This way, those who refuse to accept our value don’t have to feel guilty about their role in our oppression.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of early values regarding “divergent” sexualities. The push was to paint it as a pathology that should be stamped out through “conversion therapies” and invasive medical procedures. This made it acceptable to dehumanize those who were different and stamp them out. After all, they were broken, and all that was being done was fixing them. This sort of treatment would be unthinkable to most now, yet disabled people are put through similar things every day, in an effort to “cure” them.

Whilst we acknowledge that even if all the social aspects of disability were removed, it would not eliminate disability. However, it would allow for increased richness in general society, and an increase in our quality of life. So, instead of trying to fix us, (and push those of us who can’t be fixed out of the way,) I implore you to join with us in an attempt to make a more accessible society. Let’s create a community that welcomes the unique perspectives of disabled people, whilst trying to remove the barriers that isolate them.



Heery. Noon. (2008), A Dictionary of Human Resource Management. Oxford University Press.

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A 19 year-old Australian who subscribes to the social model of disability. She has cerebral palsy and is studying social work full time at university.

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