Treat the individual or change society? Disability as a social construct

Monday 3rd December 2018 is recognised as International Day of People with Disabilities. Thomas Vaughan from Autonomy has written this blog “Treat the individual or change society? Disability as a social construct”. Thomas works for Capgemini in Telford, and recently became co-chair of their UK Disability Network.

“3rd December has been designated as UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities since 1992. The theme for 2018 is ‘empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality’. This is linked to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, acknowledging that disabled people, “as both beneficiaries and agents of change”, can play a key role in building a more inclusive world.

Historically, the medical model of disability has dominated mainstream thinking. According to this approach, the individual has an impairment which should be treated so that they fit into the world around them. Some disabled people identify with the medical model, as they seek treatments to cure their illness or ease their pain. However, others experience lifelong impairments which cannot be cured. Under the medical model, these people will always be unable to participate in daily life.

Another model is needed which doesn’t define individuals by what is ‘wrong’ with them, or suggest that some people must inevitably be excluded from society. This alternative approach accepts that medical cures are desirable for many, but recognises what all disabled people have in common – we inhabit a social environment which, in one way or another, is not designed to meet our needs.

The social model of disability has gained wider acceptance in recent years. It says that a person is not disabled by their impairment, but by barriers within society. These barriers can be physical/environmental, organisational or attitudinal. For example, steps at the entrance to a shop are a barrier in the physical environment which disables wheelchair users. A public body which only provides information in standard format documents is creating an organisational barrier. An employer who assumes that someone with a long term condition will take a lot of sick leave is imposing an attitudinal barrier.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” – Alexander Den Heijer

The social model shifts our focus away from treating the individual impairment, and onto what society can do to break down barriers. Sometimes the solutions appear obvious; ramps can be built and entrances widened to provide wheelchair access, while organisations can provide information in a range of accessible formats (eg. large print, easy read, braille). As a safety net, legislation is in place which gives disabled people protection from some of the worst inequalities.

Attitudinal barriers are much more challenging to overcome, and often contribute to the imposing of other barriers. Whether through ignorance or fear, no-one should be seen as incapable or treated like a second class citizen. However, disabled people generally do not want sympathy either, nor do we wish to receive special praise for performing everyday tasks. Even if well-intentioned, these attitudes can create an ‘us and them’ mentality which hinders our acceptance as equal human beings. The best way to overcome this is through familiarity; by living and working alongside us you will come to recognise our shared humanity, seeing the person rather than the impairment. You will learn to accept any support needs or ‘adjustments’ as a means of enabling each individual to express their personality and abilities.

 People who have disabilities are experts on the inequalities we face, so we are best placed to set the agenda and shape the key discussions around accessibility. By helping to break down environmental, organisational and attitudinal barriers, you will not only enable us to participate in everyday life, but also empower us to lead the development of a fully inclusive world”.

Please note these words are Thomas’ own thoughts and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer.

Shropshire Disability Network, thanks Thomas for sharing his thoughts with us.




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