The medical model has formed the traditional approach to disability (Brothers, 2003). The approach defines disabled people by their health condition – by what they are not able to do – rather than their abilities. It is sometimes known as the individual model because it promotes the view that the disability is the responsibility of the individual and that an individual disabled person should fit in to the way that society is organised; the problem is with the individual disabled person not with society. It assumes that a disabled person is dependent and needs to be cured or cared for. Consequently, disabled people’s lives have often been regulated by health and social care professionals who make decisions about disabled people’s lives without fully consulting with them or offer limited choices. Medical diagnoses are used to determine access to welfare, housing, education, leisure and employment.
By contrast, the social model of disability, which was developed through the Disabled People’s Movement, offers a politicised approach to understanding disability (Gillespie-Sells et al, 1998). It considers that discrimination and prejudice in society limit the life chances of disabled people. Disability is the disadvantage a person experiences that results from the barriers they encounter in their everyday lives, including the attitudes of professionals and the general public, inaccessible environments, and organisational barriers. It is the removal of these barriers that is necessary to ensure that disabled people are able to take an active role in society. In the words of one social worker, the social model:
is very much around being about people not patients; it’s being about practice that is built around the person; it’s about an holistic approach to meeting that person’s needs; it’s hopefully about the individual themselves needing … a kind of definition of the outcomes that they’re looking for; the support that they need to help them to achieve that.
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