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Disability Models: Understanding Different Approaches to Defining and Understanding Disability

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Disability has been a subject of social and medical debates for centuries, and there is no single way to define or understand it. The concept of disability has evolved over time, from something seen as a medical problem to a social issue. Disability models offer different approaches to defining, understanding, and addressing the experience of disability. In this article, we will explore the four main disability models: the Medical Model, the Social Model, the Biopsychosocial Model, and the Human Rights Model. But first, let us define what we mean by disability and explore its historical context.

The Medical Model of Disability

The medical model of disability centers around the idea that any disability or impairment is caused by a personal health condition or bodily defect. The focus of this approach is on the individual's impairment, with the primary goal being to cure or treat the disability. By treating the underlying health condition or repairing the defective body part, the limitations caused by the disability can be reduced or eliminated altogether.

There are advantages and disadvantages associated with the medical model. On the positive side, it is a heavily researched and developed approach that has a lengthy history of successful treatments. It is a model that is recognized by healthcare professionals, and many people with disabilities have experienced great results with medical interventions.

On the negative side, the medical model often neglects broader social and environmental factors that might be contributing to the disability. This approach does not take into account social barriers and systemic discrimination that may be preventing individuals with disabilities from fully participating in society. It can also stigmatize and individualize disability, leading to further marginalization of people with disabilities.

The Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability is centred on the concept that people with impairments are not inherently disabled by their condition, but rather they become disabled because of societal barriers that impede their participation in society.

The social model recognizes that disability is not just a medical condition but can result from physical, attitudinal, cultural, and social barriers. Essentially, this model identifies that disability is a societal issue that should be addressed and not just an individual's problem to solve.

The social model has a few advantages over the medical approach, which focus mainly on the individual's impairment. The chief benefit of the social model is its emphasis on society's role in promoting the participation of people with disabilities. Social models focus on promoting social and legal changes that can enhance the lives of people with disabilities and promote their participation in society.

The downside of social models is that they can be challenging to implement. Addressing societal barriers requires comprehensive modifications to policies, laws, infrastructure, and culture that aren't always easy. While social models can be useful in reducing the negative impact of external societal factors, they can sometimes overlook the condition's internal effects on the individual.

The Biopsychosocial Model of Disability

The Biopsychosocial model of disability is a holistic approach to understanding disability. Unlike the medical model, which focuses solely on the individual's impairment, the biopsychosocial model takes a more comprehensive view. It integrates biological, psychological, and social factors to create a complete picture of the individual's disability.

This model recognizes that disabilities are not just medical conditions that need to be treated, but rather a complex interaction between one's physical impairment, mental health, and the social and cultural context in which the individual lives. With this approach, it is possible to understand why two people with the same physical condition may have entirely different experiences with their disability.

One of the primary benefits of the biopsychosocial model of disability is that it acknowledges that many disabilities are not the result of a specific medical condition but are lifelong conditions that have existed since birth. By taking the three factors into account, the model helps to understand the impact of the environment on those with disabilities. This approach provides doctors, therapists, and caregivers of persons with disabilities with a more comprehensive and effective way of treatment.

Another significant strength of the biopsychosocial model is that it removes the blame that is often placed on persons with disabilities. It recognizes that there are societal and environmental factors, in addition to physical and mental factors, that can contribute to the disability experience. The biopsychosocial approach enables individuals with disabilities to advocate for themselves and demand changes in the environment that can make it easier to navigate as a person with a disability.

The Human Rights Model of Disability

The human rights model of disability is a relatively new concept in comparison to other models. This model views disability as "a multidimensional human rights issue rather than a medical or social issue," according to the United Nations. The human rights model of disability emphasizes the individual's inherent right to enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with others. The focus shifts from impairment effects to the social exclusion and discrimination faced by people with disabilities.

The development of human rights legislation contributed significantly to the emergence of this model. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is one such example. The Convention asserts that people with disabilities should be included in all aspects of life and have the same rights as everyone else. This requires the modification of existing norms to ensure that people with disabilities are not disadvantaged or discriminated against.

This model brings many benefits. It recognizes that the denial and violation of human rights concern people with disabilities worldwide. By insisting on the implementation of human rights, the model reflects the changing realities of human life and puts people at the centre of the development process.

Human rights legislation and policies have empowered many individuals with disabilities to attain and maintain their independence. Accessibility, inclusive education, inclusion in the workforce, and freedom from discrimination contribute significantly to promoting human rights and the dignity of persons with disabilities.

Incorporating the human rights model of disability provides a vital foundation for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society. While there are still significant obstacles that people with disabilities must overcome, this model provides a pathway for the removal of these barriers. It is essential to see people with disabilities as individuals with rights, not just "patients" who have disabilities.


In conclusion, this article has explored different models of disability and their implications for persons with disabilities. We began by providing a brief overview and history of understanding disability. We then delved into four specific models: the medical model, the social model, the biopsychosocial model, and the human rights model.

We have discussed the benefits and limitations of each of these models, highlighting their distinct focus and theoretical frameworks. From the medical model's emphasis on individual impairment to the social model's broader societal approach, each model offers a unique perspective.

However, none of these models entirely capture the experiences of persons with disabilities. A holistic understanding of disability requires a combination of these models, with an emphasis on intersectionality and lived experiences.

It is crucial to recognize how these models of disability can impact the lives of persons with disabilities. Assumptions and misconceptions arising from particular models of disability can perpetuate stereotypes and lead to discrimination. Therefore, we must adopt a vigilant and inclusive approach when employing these models.

As we move forward, the future of disability models and their implications are shaped explicitly by emerging and shifting perspectives. With technology, policy, and societal advancements, we must strive to promote a more nuanced, multidimensional understanding of disability.


What is the medical model of disability?

The medical model of disability focuses on an individual's impairment and suggests that medical treatment is necessary to 'cure' or 'fix' the disability.

What are the positives of the medical model?

The medical model provides individuals with disabilities access to medical treatments and interventions that may help improve their lives.

What is the social model of disability?

The social model of disability suggests that societal barriers are the main cause of disability. It understands that obstacles in society prevent individuals with disabilities from living their lives to their fullest potential.

What are the positives of the social model?

The social model highlights the impact that societal structures, norms and values play in perpetuating disability stigma. It aims to break down the barriers that limit individuals with disabilities and create a more inclusive society.

What is the biopsychosocial model of disability?

The biopsychosocial model of disability takes into account biological, psychological and social factors to understand and treat disabilities.

What are the benefits of the biopsychosocial model?

The biopsychosocial model focuses on treating the whole person, rather than just the disability. It also considers the impact of social and psychological factors on disability, allowing for a more comprehensive approach to treatment and care.

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