Module 1: Introduction to Disability Studies

1.3 Models of Disability

“It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s, about 20 or 21, that I became aware of disability as a political issue. And that happened largely through discovering the social model of disability.”
Taylor (4:20)

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In the video, Sunaura Taylor goes on to introduce the ‘social model’ of disability and summarize one of its key interventions—the distinction it makes between ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’. Before exploring the social model and unpacking these terms, it is important to provide a brief overview of the way that ‘models’ help to structure and organize the knowledge generated by disability studies. We will then introduce some of the key models used within the field and describe a few of their essential elements.

Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?

Ideas about disability existed long before ‘disability studies’ emerged as an academic discipline. Much of the work of disability studies involves looking at the history and present way that those outside of the discipline construct their own understandings of disability, and revealing the influence these concepts have had on how disability is experienced. Analyzing the history and present life of commonly held ideas about disability helps clear a path for new ways of thinking.

Models provide the discipline with a way of organizing these different understandings of disability. The origin of these models differ, as do the ways that they are claimed, contested, and rejected by those who engage with them.

Here are five models of disability that you should be familiar with. This list is by no means exhaustive!

The Medical Model

The medical model of disability conceives of disability as a personal malady in need of cure. It relies on medical expertise; examiners, practitioners, and researchers are the keepers of knowledge about both disability and its cures. The person experiencing disability does not possess authoritative knowledge about disability by virtue of their experience. (Withers, 2012; Pfeiffer, 2002)

The Rehabilitation Model

The rehabilitation model is similar to the medical model, but views disability as something that should be diminished, rather than cured. The medical model envisions a world of ‘cured’ people—i.e., a world without disability. The rehabilitation model imagines a world of scarcely noticeable disability. The rehabilitation model seeks to ‘rehabilitate’ disability through alterations to the human mind and body as well as to the environment; however, unlike the social model below, and much like the medical model, it is led by an authoritative class of rehabilitation-experts, whose goal is to minimize the presence of disability in society. (Withers, 2012; Pfeiffer, 2002)

The Charity Model

The charity model is a further extension of the medical model, and is based on the same dichotomies of “fit” and “unfit”. Like the medical and rehabilitation models, the charity model often portrays disability as a personal tragedy. In a charity model, disabled people are often constructed into a class of ‘deserving’ citizens, who are owed a greater volume of social or philanthropic support than the rest of the population; housing, for instance, will be viewed as something to be beneficently allotted to a select few, rather than as a universal right. Disability is managed through the bureaucracies and ideologies of charitable institutions, and ‘care’ follows a rigid, top-down structure. (Withers, 2012)


Key Takeaways

The 3 models above can be characterized as ‘individualistic’ models in that disability in all 3 is found in the body and/or mind of the disabled person. They can also be categorized as ‘deficit models’, as they are grounded in the underlying assumption that disability is a form of lack.
The next two models are more closely aligned with the principles, paradigms, and perspectives of disability studies.

The Social Model

The social model was formulated by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation, a British network of advocates who fought for opportunities for people with impairments to live productively and independently in society. The term ‘impairments’ became crucial to their conceptual framework. Impairments referred to the individual and often embodied state of an individual which may impact their ability to participate in society. Disability, in the social model, refers to the social or cultural idea imposed upon an individual by their society. For instance, if an individual does not have motor control of their right hand, they are impaired in that hand; however, that same individual is only disabled to the extent that their society requires them to have full motor control of their right hand. Addressing disability in the social model thus involves a confrontation with society—the onus is on the social collective to create circumstances in which the individual can reach their full potential, regardless of any impairments they may possess. (Shakespeare, 2021)

The Radical Model

The radical model builds upon the social model of disability by conceptualizing disability as a by-product of a capitalist society that requires a certain degree of productivity from its citizens. The radical model strives to eradicate the oppression of disabled peoples by emancipating them from the demands of capitalist economy. It considers ‘impairments’ and ‘disability’ as equally socially constructed, as both are assigned their respective values due to the demand for productivity, and the conflict that demand creates with certain bodies or personalities. Like the social model, the radical model strives for ‘access’, but access here refers to more than physical access to pre-existing institutions: it also means access to non-oppressive spaces and communities. The radical model explicitly draws attention to interlocking forms of oppression, such as anti-black racism and colonial violence, and acknowledges that power functions in the overlap of oppressing ideologies. (Withers, 2012)


In disability studies, and within this Pressbook, we may use the term and it is worthwhile to go over what this term means.  Bodymind is a materialist feminist term first initially explored by mad studies scholar Margaret Price (2015) and disability studies theorist Alison Kafer (2013). Bodyminds refers to the ways in which bodies and minds are connected and overlapping – which is to say, our bodies and minds are impossible to separate or to fully comprehend in distinction from one another.

The concept of bodyminds helps us understand how what happens to us ‘mentally’ always also impacts us physically and vice versa. At some level that seems intuitive; if we are injured when bitten by a dog, for instance, we feel betrayed, scared, regretful, surprised, or any other emotion that flows out of that context. Similarly, if we are feeling anxious about a public presentation we may feel sweaty, shaky, and notice that our breath rate has increased. Despite how common these connections are for all of us, in Western/ized societies we tend to think of the body and mind as distinct, prioritizing the mind’s capacity to control or overcome corporeal limitations and fragility. Increasingly, we turn to the government of the body through exercise, diet, and other forms of self-care as a means to secure mental wellness. While these efforts speak to how bodies and minds are connected, Price argues that they still keep body and mind “rhetorically distinct” (2015, page i).

Test your knowledge of these models of disability with the Model Match activity below.





You can continue watching, reading or listening to the video here (the video and transcript start from 4:08 – the quote above)

Click here to continue reading the Examined Life video transcript


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Digital Methods for Disability Studies Copyright © 2022 by Esther Ignagni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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