Understanding Social, Medical, and Cultural Models to Improve Accessibility

Published June 20, 2022

Recognizing the different perspectives of disability can help improve accessibility in all areas where differing views of disability have been taken into consideration. To do so, one must first understand the theoretical perspectives of disability.

Medical Model

The medical model views disability as a deficiency or abnormality. Disability is seen as the result of a physical or psychological deficiency. With the medical perspective in mind, the "problem" is the individual with a disability. The one who can promote change is believed to be a medical expert. The medical model targets individuals with disabilities and others' efforts to accommodate as the main issues that need change. The goal of the change effort is to diagnose, diminish, correct, and accommodate perceived deficits.

The medical model emphasizes the importance of biological factors, creates a certain standard of criteria for medical treatment and legal evaluation, and pushes for investment in health care to provide services to support people with disabilities.

The weaknesses of this model are that it disregards the impact of design choices in society (viewing the person with a disability as the "problem" or "obstacle" rather than the environment that surrounds them), can create and continue stigma, promotes exclusive rather than inclusive definitions and criteria for disabilities, and dehumanizes when a person has to "prove" their disability (i.e., via medical treatment or legal evaluation).

Social Model

The social model, or the social perspective, views disability as a difference. It considers ableism and a general lack of accessibility as the cause of disability. In other words, the social model views disability as "a condition created by bad design." The main focus of the problem roots back to social institutions and processes. Those who have the power to change the problem are believed to be individuals with disabilities, disability advocates, social movements, and institutional leaders. The social model changes institutional processes and protocols, traditional social practices, and societal norms and values. The social model's goal is to increase accessibility in all aspects of daily living and society to remove all obstacles that restrict and remove choices for people with disabilities.

The strengths of this model are that it emphasizes the human right for an individual to participate in society freely, emphasizes the human right for an individual to be in control of their life choices, removes the stigma associated with having a disability, and inspires creative, inclusive, and more accessible design.

The weaknesses of this model are that it forgets to emphasize the biological reality of disability that exists for thousands of individuals, and strips disability from a person's identity. While some believe that disability should not be viewed as part of a person's identity, many disabled people do consider their disability as a part of their identity.

Cultural Model

The cultural model values disability as human diversity. From this model's perspective, ableism, lack of accessibility, and personal feelings cause heightened problems and serve as barriers for individuals with disabilities. Like the social model, the cultural model of disability views ableist ideology and social institutions as the root of the problem. With this perspective, those who can incite change are thought to be society, disability culture as a whole, and social movements. The cultural model seeks to change institutions' beliefs viewing disability as a "problem" that must be fixed or ignored. With the said change, the goal is that disability will be reframed as a valuable and vital part of human diversity.

The strengths of this model are that disability is accepted, disability is seen as a source of pride and belonging, and groups are likely to advocate for political change.

The weakness of this model is the feeling of alienation from the rest of society when one is part of a specific group.

Other Models

While social, medical, and cultural models are the main theoretical perspectives of disability, they are by no means the only ones that exist. Other models and perspectives, each with their strengths and weaknesses, include economic, functional, tragedy/charity, affirmation, sociopolitical, religious and moral, expert, and rehabilitation.

Widen your perspective

The way that different models frame disability gives light to how others implement accessibility. To provide better accessibility, it's important to widen our perspectives and deepen our understanding of disabilities and the strengths and weaknesses that accompany them.

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