What Are the Three Most Common Models of Disability?

December 16, 2022

To create a better internet, we need to think about how our perspectives about disability shape the conversation. That starts with a careful consideration of the terminology we use to discuss disabilities.

In previous articles, we’ve discussed why word choice is important. Referring to someone as “wheelchair-bound,” for instance, is offensive and inaccurate. People might use wheelchairs, but they’re certainly not bound to them. 

The words we use can affect how people feel about their disabilities, and while perspectives about disability can vary, they can be categorized into several models. These models provide a reference point for creating laws, standards, and regulations, and they’re practically useful for improving wider conversations about disability awareness. 

The Major Models of Disability: An Overview

So, why should you care about models of disability? 

By understanding how you conceptualize disability, you can adopt a more inclusive mindset. People experience disabilities in profoundly different ways, and you can’t understand all of those experiences — but you can certainly develop your perspective. 

Leaders in the disability rights movement have identified several models of disability, which can be helpful for digital accessibility discussions. Here’s an introduction to each framework. 

1. The Medical Model of Disability

Within the medical model, a disability is an impairment or disease that requires treatment. The goal of the medical model is to correct the condition, and as a result, medical professionals are seen as “experts.” Medical or clinical terminology is used to discuss disabilities. 

A major problem with this mindset is that it downplays the real-life experiences of people with disabilities. People are expected to follow medical advice, regardless of how they perceive their condition. 

This can have a harmful effect. For example, many Deaf people have strong connections within their community and do not perceive deafness as a “problem" that needs to be solved. 

Additionally, the medical model identifies people with disabilities as “patients.” Many disability rights advocates believe that this implies that people are passive in their own treatment — and that they can never become equal to people who don’t have disabilities.

It’s important to remember that health practitioners may not agree with the medical model of disability. Many physicians, psychologists, nurses, and other professionals understand that the medical model is limited.

Related: A Quick Style Guide for Writing Disability-Focused Content

2. The Social Model of Disability

Within the social model, a disability is seen as part of a person’s identity. Disability is not a “burden,” but a fact of life — after all, over a billion people worldwide have disabilities. The challenges of living with a disability are not the direct result of the condition — they occur because of societal failures and discrimination. 

The social framework holds that societies and environments should adapt to accommodate disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws are built on this concept: Members of society (including government agencies and private businesses) have a responsibility to consider the experiences of people with disabilities and remove barriers to access.

While the social model is useful for removing the stigma that surrounds disabilities, it also has limitations. By focusing on the need for societal changes, the social model may ignore the distinct experiences of individuals who have disabilities. 

Related: 4 Ways That Web Developers Can Learn More About Accessibility

3. The Moral / Charity Model of Disability

Within the moral model, disability suggests something about a person’s character. This can be positive or negative. For example, a person may believe that their disability shows their faith in their religion, which they may see as positive. 

Alternatively, people may assume that people with disabilities are “victims" who always need help — this is sometimes called the charity model of disability, and it’s widely considered to be outdated and harmful. 

Related: What Is Ableism? Fighting Assumptions About People with Disabilities

The models of disability can help us build a better internet

People have a wide range of abilities, and the goal of inclusive design is to build products that work effectively for everyone — regardless of whether they have functional limitations, and regardless of whether they see those limitations as a “disability.”

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) recognizes this reality. WCAG is largely designed around the social model: Organizations have a responsibility to create inclusive content, and accessible websites work better for everyone. 

 To learn more, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.

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