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Theoretical Models of Disabilities: Part 1 – Understanding the Medical Model

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In the realm of disability studies, the medical model has played a significant role in shaping the understanding and treatment of disabilities. The medical model of disability views disability primarily as an individual’s physical or mental impairment that requires medical intervention. This approach focuses on diagnosing and treating the condition to enable individuals to function as normally as possible. In this blog post, we will delve into the medical model of disability, its key principles, criticisms, and its impact on individuals with disabilities.

Understanding the Medical Model of Disability

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The medical model of disability views disability primarily as an individual’s physical or mental impairment that requires medical intervention. It focuses on diagnosing and treating the condition to enable individuals to function as normally as possible. The model emphasizes the pathophysiology of the impairment and aims to alleviate or eliminate it through medical treatments, therapies, surgeries, medications, and assistive devices.

Key Principles of the Medical Model

Monitoring The Health Of Their Patients

High angle shot of a group of medical practitioners working together in a hospital


The medical model perceives disability as a medical problem or deviation from the norm. It seeks to identify the underlying causes of the impairment and diagnoses the condition to develop appropriate treatments. This approach emphasizes understanding the biology and physiology of the impairment.

Individual Focus

The medical model places the primary responsibility for addressing disability on the individual with the impairment. It focuses on the person’s specific impairments, limitations, and medical needs. The goal is to minimize or eliminate the disability through medical interventions, with an emphasis on restoring or improving the individual’s functioning.

Cure and Rehabilitation

The medical model seeks to find ways to cure or rehabilitate individuals with disabilities. It emphasizes medical treatments, therapies, and interventions that can alleviate impairments, improve functionality, and enhance the quality of life for individuals. Rehabilitation processes may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and other forms of targeted interventions.

Strengths of the Medical Model

Medical Advances

The medical model has contributed significantly to medical advancements and interventions that have improved the lives of many individuals with disabilities. It has led to the development of treatments, medications, and assistive technologies that enhance functionality and alleviate impairments.

Individualized Care

medical exam

The medical model recognizes the unique needs and challenges of individuals with disabilities. It emphasizes personalized care, taking into account the specific impairments and medical conditions of each individual. This approach allows for tailored interventions and treatments to address the individual’s specific needs.

Criticisms of the Medical Model

The medical model of disability, while it has its strengths, also faces several challenges and criticisms. Some of the key challenges associated with the medical model of disabilities are as follows:

1. Reductionist Perspective:

One of the main challenges of the medical model is its reductionist perspective. It tends to view disability solely as a medical issue, focusing primarily on the individual’s impairments or medical conditions. This narrow focus overlooks the broader social, environmental, and attitudinal factors that contribute to disability. By disregarding the societal barriers and discrimination faced by individuals with disabilities, the model fails to address the systemic inequalities that limit their opportunities and full participation in society.

2. Pathologizing Disability:

The medical model often frames disability as a problem or defect that needs to be fixed or cured. This perspective can contribute to the stigmatization and marginalization of individuals with disabilities. It may perpetuate negative stereotypes, reinforce a sense of inadequacy or dependency, and overlook the unique strengths, abilities, and perspectives of individuals with disabilities. It is essential to move away from a purely medical perspective and adopt a more inclusive and empowering approach.

3. Lack of Social Context:

Another challenge of the medical model is its limited consideration of the social context in which disabilities exist. It tends to overlook the impact of inaccessible environments, discriminatory practices, and systemic barriers that hinder the full participation and inclusion of individuals with disabilities in society. By focusing solely on the individual, the medical model fails to recognize and address the structural factors that perpetuate disability-related barriers.

4. Power Imbalance and Paternalism:

The medical model often positions healthcare professionals as the authority and decision-makers, potentially marginalizing the perspectives and autonomy of individuals with disabilities. This power imbalance can lead to a paternalistic approach, where the voices and lived experiences of disabled individuals may be disregarded or undervalued. It is crucial to recognize the agency and self-determination of individuals with disabilities and involve them in decision-making processes related to their care and support.

5. Lack of Long-Term Support:

The medical model primarily focuses on acute medical care and immediate interventions rather than providing comprehensive, long-term support for individuals with disabilities. This can result in fragmented care and limited attention to the ongoing needs and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities throughout their lives. There is a need for a more holistic and person-centered approach that considers the holistic well-being and long-term support of individuals with disabilities.


The medical model of disability has played a significant role in shaping our understanding and approach to disabilities. While it has contributed to medical advancements and personalized care for individuals with disabilities, it has faced criticism for its reductionist perspective and pathologizing nature. It is essential to recognize the limitations of the medical model and adopt more comprehensive and inclusive approaches that address the social, environmental, and attitudinal barriers faced by individuals with disabilities. In Part 2 of this series, we will explore alternative models that offer broader perspectives on disability, emphasizing social factors, rights-based approaches, and cultural affirmation.

What is next?

In our next installment, we’ll explore what is Social model of disability.

For more information on why accessibility is important in general, you can check out my previous blog post here.

For further information on how In our next installment, we’ll explore the importance of captions for individuals with hearing disabilities and delve into how we can promote digital products using captions with semantic markup to enhance accessibility for those with hearing make your product accessible to your audience, contact our experienced design experts, check out our Accessibility IQ for your website, download our guide Digitally Accessible Experiences: Why It Matters and How to Create Them, read more from our UX for Accessible Design series.

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Gulen Yilmaz

Highly dedicated Web Accessibility Consultant who is driven by a passion for contributing to team success. With a strong work ethic, meticulous attention to detail, excellent communication skills, and outstanding collaborative abilities, she consistently goes above and beyond to ensure project success. Her cross-functional capabilities enable her to effectively work across various roles and departments. Additionally, she holds a CPACC certification in the field of accessibility, further validating her expertise. With over 3 years of experience working on accessibility teams, she has honed her skills in different types of testing and has gained proficiency in analysis, design, development, implementation, enhancement, and accessibility testing of applications within the IT industry. Her unwavering commitment to accessibility and her extensive experience make her an invaluable asset to any team.

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