Models of Disability: Types and Definitions

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Published: 2010/09/10 - Updated: 2023/09/20
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Synopsis: Lists the scholarly defined different models of disability and also provides explanations on each of the various current models in society today. The spectrum model refers to the range of visibility, audibility and sensibility under which mankind functions. The model asserts that disability does not necessarily mean reduced spectrum of operations. Disability rights movements, activists, scholars, and practitioners construct debates around the two main models, social and medical, of understanding of disabilities.


Main Digest

Disability studies is an academic discipline that examines and theorizes about the social, political, cultural, and economic factors that define disability. The disability rights movement, scholars, activists and practitioners construct debates around two distinctly different models of understanding of disability - the social and medical models of disability.

Many scholars in disability studies describe a medical model of disability that is part of the general biomedical approach. In this model, disability is considered an entirely physical occurrence, and being disabled is a negative that can only be made better if the disability is cured and the person is made "normal". Many disability rights advocates reject this, and promote a social model in which disability is a difference - neither a good nor bad trait.

The Models of Disability

Biomedical Model of Health

The biomedical model of health is the most dominant in the western world and focuses on health purely in terms of biological factors. Contained within the biomedical model of health is a medical model of disability. In a similar vein, this focuses on disability purely in terms of the impairment that it gives the individual. The biomedical model is often contrasted with the biop-sychosocial model.

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Clipart image of an empty wheelchair in the foreground with colored silhouettes of people to the left and right of the wheelchair. A world map is featured in the background.
Clipart image of an empty wheelchair in the foreground with colored silhouettes of people to the left and right of the wheelchair. A world map is featured in the background.

Medical Model of Disability

The medical model of disability is presented as viewing disability as a problem of the person, directly caused by disease, trauma, or other health condition which therefore requires sustained medical care provided in the form of individual treatment by professionals.

Identity Model

Disability as an identity model is closely related to the social model of disability - yet with a fundamental difference in emphasis - is the identity model (or affirmation model) of disability.

This model shares the social model's understanding that the experience of disability is socially constructed, but differs to the extent that it 'claims disability as a positive identity' (Brewer et al. 2012:5). Brewer et al. (2012).

Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability sees the issue of "disability" as a socially created problem and a matter of the full integration of individuals into society.

In this model, disability is not an attribute of an individual, but rather a complex collection of conditions, many of which are created by the social environment. Hence, the management of the problem requires social action and is the collective responsibility of society at large to make the environmental modifications necessary for the full participation of people with disabilities in all areas of social life.

The issue is both cultural and ideological, requiring individual, community, and large-scale social change. From this perspective, equal access for someone with an impairment/disability is a human rights issue of major concern.

Minority Model of Disability

The minority model of disability, also known as sociopolitical model of disability, adds to the social model, the idea that disability is imposed on top of impairment via negative attitudes and social barriers, in suggesting that people with disabilities constitute a entitative, (relating to or possessing material existence), social category that shares in common the experience of disability.

The minority model normalizes the experience of disability as a minority experience no more or less aberrant or deviant than other minority groups' experiences (sex, race, sexual orientation, etc.). Essentially, this is the assertion that people with disabilities are, in part, disabled not by what's going on with our bodies per se, but by the manner in which the able-bodied majority of society views us and either molds or does not mold itself to allow us to fit.

Expert or Professional Model of Disability

The expert or professional model of disability has provided a traditional response to disability issues and can be seen as an offshoot of the medical model.

Within its framework, professionals follow a process of identifying the impairment and its limitations (using the medical model), and taking the necessary action to improve the position of the disabled person. This has tended to produce a system in which an authoritarian, over-active service provider prescribes and acts for a passive client.

Tragedy and/or Charity Model of Disability

The tragedy and/or charity model of disability depicts disabled people as victims of circumstance who are deserving of pity.

This, along with the medical model, are the models most used by non-disabled people to define and explain disability.

Moral Model of Disability

The moral model of disability refers to the attitude that people are morally responsible for their own disability. For example, the disability may be seen as a result of bad actions of parents if congenital, or as a result of practicing witchcraft if not.

This attitude may also be viewed as a religious fundamentalist offshoot of the original animal roots of human beings when humans killed any baby that could not survive on its own in the wild. Echoes of this can be seen in the doctrine of karma in Indian religions.

Legitimacy Model of Disability

The legitimacy model of disability views disability as a value-based determination about which explanations for the atypical are legitimate for membership in the disability category. This viewpoint allows for multiple explanations and models to be considered as purposive and viable (DePoy & Gilson, 2004) (Elizabeth DePoy & Stephen Gilson).

Empowering Model of Disability

The empowering model of disability allows for the person with a disability and his/her family to decide the course of their treatment and what services they wish to benefit from. This, in turn, turns the professional into a service provider whose role is to offer guidance and carry out the client's decisions. In other words, this model "empowers" the individual to pursue his/her own goals.

Social Adapted Model of Disability

The social adapted model of disability states although a person's disability poses some limitations in an able-bodied society, oftentimes the surrounding society and environment are more limiting than the disability itself.

Economic Model of Disability

The economic model of disability defines disability by a person's inability to participate in work.

It also assesses the degree to which impairment affects an individual's productivity and the economic consequences for the individual, employer and the state. Such consequences include loss of earnings for and payment for assistance by the individual; lower profit margins for the employer; and state welfare payments. This model is directly related to the charity/tragedy model.

Diversity Model of Disability

Disability as Human Variation, an alternative model intended to focus attention on how society's systems respond to variation introduced by disability (Scotch and Shriner 1997). Under this model, accessibility in the built environment, for example, is not solely achieved by anti-discrimination regulation requiring a 'universal solution; the diversity of disability must be acknowledged (Scotch and Shriner 1997). Shriner and Scotch (2001) further question the socio-political definition of disability, in which (all) barriers faced by people with disability are (built-environment) imposed and therefore removable, feeling that this common underlying ideology of disability rights activists and independent living movements insufficiently recognizes that impairment does have a bearing on accessibility outcomes.

Seeking to overcome the false dichotomy of ability/disability, Bickenbach et al. (1999) pursue the concept of universalism, proposing: While the social model is now universally accepted, it is argued that universalism as a model for theory development, research and advocacy serves disabled persons more effectively than a civil rights or minority group approach. (p. 1173) - (Models of Disability and Human Rights: Informing the Improvement of Built Environment Accessibility for People with Disability at Neighborhood Scale?)

What Is: Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical

Religious Model of Disability

The moral/religious model of disability is the oldest model of disability and is found in a number of religious traditions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition (Pardeck & Murphy 2012:xvii). The religious model of disability is a pre-modern paradigm that views disability as an act of a god, usually a punishment for some sin committed by the disabled individual or their family. In that sense, disability is punitive and tragic in nature.

This model frames disability as something to be ashamed of and insinuates that disabled people or their families are guilty of some unknown action that caused their impairment. But that mentality only serves to stigmatize disability, and the claim that praying heals disability is based on purely anecdotal evidence.

Disability and Religion: Studies and Overview

Market Model of Disability

The market model of disability is a minority rights and consumerist model of disability that recognizing people with disabilities and their Stakeholders as representing a large group of consumers, employees and voters. This model looks to personal identity to define disability and empowers people to chart their own destiny in everyday life, with a particular focus on economic empowerment.

By this model, based on US Census data, there are 1.2 billion people in the world who consider themselves to have a disability. An additional two billion people are considered Stakeholders in disability (family/friends/employers), and when combined to the number of people without disabilities, represents 53% of the population. This model states that, due to the size of the demographic, companies and governments will serve the desires, pushed by demand as the message becomes prevalent in the cultural mainstream.

Human Rights Based Model of Disability

From the mid 1980's countries such as Australia enacted legislation which embraced rights-based discourse rather than custodial discourse and seeks to address the issues of social justice and discrimination. The legislations embraced the shift from disability being seen as an individual medical problem to it instead being about community membership and fair access to social activities such as employment, education and recreation.

The emphasis in the 1980's shifted from dependence to independence as people with disabilities sought to have a political voice. Disability activism also helped to develop and pass legislation and entitlements became available to many people. However, while the rights-based model of disability has helped to develop additional entitlements, it has not changed the way in which the idea of disability is constructed. The stigma of 'bad genes' or 'abnormality' still goes unchallenged and the idea of community is still elusive.

Relational Model of Disability

In the late 1960s Nirje, a Swedish social theorist, formulated the principles of normalization emphasizing strong support of de-institutionalization, recognition of the diversity of the human condition, and belief that people with disability and 'normal' (ordinary) life, including access to the built environment, are not mutually exclusive.

This work represents part of an emerging grand idea of social inclusion for people with disability in the community and within the neighborhood (Nirje [1969] 1994). Following on in this continuum of Nordic interest in people - environment interaction, a new disability model developed around the end of 1990s - early2000s, and has subsequently been recognized as the (Nordic) Relational Model of Disability (Goodley 2011) - (Models of Disability and Human Rights: Informing the Improvement of Built Environment Accessibility for People with Disability at Neighborhood Scale?)

Affirmation Model of Disability

The affirmation model of disability is essentially a non-tragic view of disability and impairment which encompasses positive social identities, both individual and collective, for disabled people grounded in the benefits of lifestyle and life experience of being impaired and disabled. This view has arisen in direct opposition to the dominant personal tragedy model of disability and impairment, and builds on the liberatory imperative of the social model.

Rooting their idea in the values of Disability Pride and perspectives emerging from the disability arts movement, Swain and French identified the affirmation model as a critique of the personal tragedy model corresponding to the social model as a critique of the medical model.

Spectrum Model of Disability

The spectrum model of disability refers to the range of visibility, audibility and sensibility under which mankind functions. The model asserts that disability does not necessarily mean reduced spectrum of operations.

International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF)

The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) is a framework for describing and organizing information on functioning and disability. It provides a standard language and a conceptual basis for the definition and measurement of health and disability.

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Infographic outlining some of the Models of Disability classifications.
Infographic outlining some of the Models of Disability classifications.

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