Skip to main content


Theoretical Models of Disabilities: Part 2 – Understanding the Social Model

Diverse Group Of Students Chatting

Welcome back to the second part of our blog series on theoretical models of disabilities. In this installment, we will continue exploring the social model of disability, delving deeper into its implications, practical applications, and its potential to reshape our understanding of disability. By embracing this model, we can work towards a more inclusive society that values diversity and empowers individuals with disabilities.

The key principles of the social model of disability are as follows

  1. Distinction between Impairment and Disability: The social model makes a clear distinction between impairment and disability. It recognizes that impairment refers to an individual’s physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental health condition, while disability arises from the interaction between impairments and societal barriers.
  2. Societal Barriers: The social model highlights the significance of identifying and removing societal barriers that hinder the full participation and inclusion of individuals with disabilities. These barriers can include physical obstacles, inaccessible infrastructure, negative attitudes, discriminatory policies, and lack of accommodations.
  3. Focus on Equality and Rights: The social model emphasizes equality and the rights of individuals with disabilities. It advocates for equal opportunities, access to education, employment, healthcare, transportation, and other essential services. Recognizing and addressing the barriers that impede equal access and participation is crucial to promoting a more equitable society.
  4. Empowerment and Self-Advocacy: The social model encourages individuals with disabilities to become active agents in their own lives. It promotes self-advocacy and empowerment, recognizing the importance of giving individuals the tools, resources, and opportunities to voice their needs, make decisions, and influence policies and practices that affect them directly.
  5. Intersectionality: The social model acknowledges that disability intersects with other social identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. It recognizes that individuals with disabilities may face multiple forms of discrimination and marginalization and advocates for an intersectional approach to understanding and addressing these experiences.
  6. Change at the Societal Level: The social model places responsibility on society to create inclusive environments that remove barriers and promote equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities. It calls for changes in attitudes, policies, practices, and physical environments to ensure the full participation and inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of life.


Strengths of the Social Model

A group of coworkers meeting together.

The social model of disability offers several strengths that have contributed to its widespread adoption and influence. Here are some key strengths of the social model:

Shifting Focus

One of the major strengths of the social model is its ability to shift the focus from the individual’s impairments to the societal barriers that create disability. By redirecting attention to the environmental, attitudinal, and systemic factors, it highlights the need to address these barriers rather than placing the burden solely on the individual.

Empowerment and Agency

The social model places a strong emphasis on empowering individuals with disabilities to take an active role in their lives. By recognizing that disability is not an inherent flaw but a result of societal barriers, it encourages self-advocacy, self-determination, and active participation in decision-making processes. This empowerment enables individuals with disabilities to voice their needs, influence policies, and shape their own lives.

Social Change and Inclusion

The social model promotes social change by calling for the removal of barriers and the creation of inclusive environments. It challenges societal attitudes, practices, and structures that perpetuate discrimination and exclusion. By addressing these barriers, the model aims to create a society that values diversity, respects the rights of individuals with disabilities, and ensures their full inclusion and participation.


The social model recognizes that disability intersects with other social identities and experiences, such as race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. It acknowledges the unique challenges faced by individuals with disabilities who belong to marginalized groups and highlights the need to address multiple forms of discrimination. This intersectional approach fosters a more nuanced understanding of disability and promotes inclusivity for all individuals.

Advocacy and Policy Influence

The social model has played a significant role in shaping advocacy efforts and influencing policy development. By challenging traditional views of disability and highlighting the importance of societal barriers, the model has driven changes in legislation, policies, and practices to promote accessibility, equal rights, and opportunities for individuals with disabilities.


Universal Design and Accessibility

The social model emphasizes the importance of designing environments, products, and services that are accessible and inclusive for everyone, regardless of their abilities. This has led to the widespread adoption of universal design principles, which aim to create environments that can be used by all individuals, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities.

By capitalizing on these strengths, the social model has transformed the discourse around disability, contributing to positive changes in societal attitudes, policies, and practices, and paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable society.

Criticisms of the Social Model

Istock 1200658859

While the social model of disability has made significant contributions to our understanding of disability, it is not without its criticisms. Some of the common criticisms include:

Neglecting Individual Experience

Critics argue that the social model overlooks the unique experiences and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. By focusing primarily on societal barriers, it may downplay the personal and subjective aspects of disability, including the impact of impairments on an individual’s daily life and well-being.

Oversimplification of Complexities

Critics argue that the social model oversimplifies the complex nature of disability by attributing all limitations and disadvantages to societal barriers. They argue that while societal factors play a significant role, some impairments can present inherent challenges that cannot be solely attributed to external barriers.

Disregarding Medical Aspects

Another criticism is that the social model tends to downplay the importance of medical aspects of disability. By focusing on social barriers, it may undermine the significance of medical interventions, treatments, and assistive technologies that can enhance the quality of life and functioning for individuals with disabilities.

Unrealistic Solutions

Some critics argue that the social model’s emphasis on removing societal barriers may not always offer practical solutions. They contend that while it is important to address barriers, there will always be some level of accommodation and support required for individuals with certain impairments.

Lack of Intersectionality

Although the social model acknowledges the intersectionality of disability, critics argue that it often fails to fully address the unique experiences and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities who belong to marginalized groups, such as disabled people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals with disabilities, or individuals with disabilities from low-income backgrounds.

Potential for Inertia

Critics argue that the social model’s focus on external barriers may lead to a sense of inertia, where the responsibility for change solely lies with society. This may reduce the emphasis on personal agency and the proactive pursuit of personal goals and aspirations by individuals with disabilities.

It’s important to note that these criticisms do not negate the value and contributions of the social model of disability, but rather highlight areas where further discussion and refinement may be needed to provide a comprehensive understanding of disability. Incorporating multiple perspectives and models can help us develop a more holistic approach to disability that considers both the societal and individual aspects.

The social model of disability presents a paradigm shift in our understanding of disability, emphasizing the role of societal barriers in creating disabling conditions. By recognizing that disability is not solely an individual’s limitation but a social construct, we can work towards removing these barriers and promoting a more inclusive society. Through empowerment, shifting attitudes, and advocating for policy changes, we can create an environment where individuals with disabilities can thrive and contribute fully, ensuring a society that values diversity and embraces the rights and capabilities of all its members.

What is next?

In our next installment, we’ll explore what is Biopsychosocial 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

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.

More from this Author

Follow Us