Disability Politics: introduction

‘Impairment’ or ‘disability’? ‘Disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’? ‘Ableism’ or ‘disableism’? And what are the ‘social model’ and the ‘medical model’ anyway?

Image shows a cartoon that explains the difference between the medical and social models of disability. Specifically, it shows a person in a wheelchair at the bottom of the steps.  On the right is a caption saying “they should build a ramp” and on the left is a caption saying that the “impairment is the problem”)


A lot of how we understand and speak about disability depends on where we come from, and a lot of the language we use relies on very academic thinking. The reason disability activists use certain language in certain ways is often not clearly explained.
This series of blog posts is designed to explain some of these linguistic debates and clarify what people mean when they use specific language. I hope to explain what various ideas mean and their strengths and weaknesses

  1. ‘Disabled’? The medical model of disability
  2. ‘Disabled’! The social model of disability
  3. Ableism or disableism? What’s the difference?
  4. Abled? Enabled? Non-disabled? – What do we call them?

In order to understand the world, theorists rely on what are called ‘models’. These models offer a way of understanding the world that can be applied to it. They are a set of ideas that could explain the way the world, which are applied to the world in order to test it.

In this series, I will be looking at two major models, and each of them has a ‘sub-model’ which I will be exploring also. These two models are called ‘the medical model of disability’ (which closely relates to the ‘personal tragedy model of disability’) and ‘the social model of disability’ (which closely relates to ‘the affirmative model of disability’).

I will go into these models in a lot more depth as I go through this series, but in brief:

The medical model of disability: being disabled means that you have a medical problem affecting how your body or mind work. Your disability is what’s wrong with your body/mind. We will try to cure you, or treat you and make you better. If you can’t be cured or treated, society should try to treat you kindly but the focus should be on fixing you

The personal tragedy model of disability: it is a tragedy that you are ill and that you can’t be fully cured. This has ruined your life, and you will never be happy again. Disability is the worst thing that could happen to anyone

The social model of disability: disabled people are people who are being prevented from participating fully in society by non-disabled people. Disabled people have impairments (a defect or difference in function from what is considered non-disabled) but are discriminated against by society as a group. We might or might not wish for medical treatment but our primary focus should be on challenging the discrimination disabled people face.

The affirmative model of disability: becoming or being disabled shouldn’t ruin your life at all. Being disabled isn’t a tragedy. Many disabled people would rather be who we are than spend our lives wishing we were someone else. We might want treatment or cures, but we want to focus on the resilience and joy of disability. There are experiences we have received from being disabled that we could not have found any other way, and that we value immensely.

More on both of those ways of thinking later…

What do you think about the language we use when we talk about disability? Do you see yourself as disabled by a medical condition, or disabled by society? Follow this series to find out more about disability politics and language.

If you want to join in the conversation, why not comment here, message me on Facebook, or tweet me @jamierhale

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