A brief introduction to the medical and social models of disability.
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TRANSCRIPT OF “MEDICAL OR SOCIAL?”
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MALE VO [00:03]
This is Bad Attitudes.
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Hello friends and strangers! Welcome to another episode of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast about Disability. I’m your host, Laura.
Today we’re talking about a couple of different ways society looks at disability, specifically the medical and social models of disability.
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As always, I want to remind you that disability is not a monolith. My experience as a disabled person is going to be different from the experiences of other disabled people. I am one voice for the disabled community but I am not the only voice.
When we talk about “models of disability,” what we mean is the way we define disability, its causes, its effects, and its impacts. I am not a disability studies scholar, so everything I say is my own understanding and interpretation of information curated by others. There are actually many models of disability, but I’m going to focus on the two that are most well-known and, I think, most impact disabled people today: the medical model and the social model.
I didn’t learn about the models of disability until I was in my 20s, and when I did, the social model made the most sense to me. The social model of disability states that my body doesn’t make me disabled, the environment around me makes me disabled. Yes, my osteogenesis imperfecta requires me to use a wheelchair, but if my environment was fully accessible, there would be virtually no discernible difference between me and the typical non-disabled person. It is the lack of accessibility, the lack of access, that makes me disabled.
Learning about the social model of disability felt like a lightbulb going on. I had spent a good part of my life thinking that I was the problem and I was the reason I couldn’t enjoy or participate in certain elements of society. Recognizing that I wasn’t the problem was hugely freeing. It’s not my fault I’m disabled. (Which is true no matter which model of disability you ascribe to.) I’m disabled because the world at large makes it so difficult for me to participate.
Once I resonated with the social model of disability, I basically washed my hands of the entire conversation. That’s it. That explains it. People aren’t disabled. They’re disabled because the world MAKES them disabled.
As I spent more time learning about chronic illnesses, I came to realize that wasn’t necessarily the case. I came to see that, in fact, the medical model of disability can actually be very beneficial to people who are disabled due to chronic illness, chronic fatigue, et cetera.
The medical model of disability defines disability as a problem of the person, IE, a person is disabled because of a problem with their body, and the ultimate goal is to find a cure. Even if the environment were one hundred percent accessible, the medical model of disability would conclude that a disabled person is still disabled, even if there is no discernible difference between them and an average non-disabled person, where societal particpation is concerned.
The medical model can be problematic in many ways, first by asserting that it is ONLY the body which makes one disabled. As I stated, I require the use of a wheelchair due to my osteogenesis imperfecta, but that simple fact does not make me disabled, except under the medical model. The medical model does not take into consideration the fullness of one’s life, or one’s access to and participation in society or their environment. Additional problems arise when considering that the medical model focuses on finding a cure for whatever disability is affecting an individual. The rhetoric of cure and disability is a conversation for another day, but, essentially, the problem is that the medical model does not seek to improve the life of a disabled person in ways OTHER than pertaining to the body. For example, there is no focus on making environments more accessible as a way to increasing a person’s involvement in society. The medical model of disability seeks only to solve problems in the body which, if you’re like me and the problems of your body can’t be solved, leaves you up a very inaccessible creek.
For many chronically ill people, however, their disability is caused exclusively by problems within their bodies, which is why the medical model of disability works for them. Their illness may not affect their mobility, which means they don’t have problems gaining access to certain environments, but their bodies may have trouble doing something as simple as regulating temperatures. That is something that is not affected by outside forces, and therefore, no adjustment to outside forces can really benefit them.
Realistically, however, most disabled and chronically ill people would be best served by a combination of the medical and social models. Often, the medical needs of our bodies and the limitations placed on us by society and our environments overlap to create the experience of disability. This would mean seeking medical solutions to the problems within our bodies but also seeking solutions to the forces outside the disabled person which further enforces disability.
Again, I’ll use myself as an example. Growing up, I had multiple operations to increase the stability of my bones, made fragile by OI. Simultaneously, my parents also advocated for more access and better treatment for me as a disabled child. The operations were a means to answer the medical aspect of my disability, while my parents’ advocacy was a means to improve the impact society had on my existence.
I still mostly ascribe to the social model of disability for myself. Medically, OI required me to use a wheelchair, but societal and environmental barriers are what truly limited me. Consider last week’s episode, where I talked about transferring high schools. Once I was in an environment where the barriers were minimal, I was able to flourish. The medical aspect of my disability did not change. The only thing that changed was the environment I was in. But the impact of that change was enormous.
Despite how it may sound, the barriers indicated in the social model of disability are not just physical barriers. Barriers exist in attitudes, in behaviors, in how non-disabled people treat disabled people. It’s relatively easy to improve or remove physical barriers; it is much more difficult to change attitudes and behaviors. Unfortunately, the best way to remove physical barriers begins with removing those intangible barriers.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next one.
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