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Disability Awareness / Statistics

Social and Medical Models of Disability: Paradigm Change

Disability is a human reality that has been perceived differently by diverse cultures and historical periods.  For most of the 20th century, disability was defined according to a medical model that defines a disability as the result of a physical condition within an individual.  In 2001 the World Health Organization (WHO) established a new definition of disability based on human rights or social models.

Medical or Individual Model

The medical model of disability defines an illness or disability as the result of a physical condition, which is intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body) and which may reduce the individual’s quality of life and cause clear disadvantages to the individual.

The medical model tends to believe that curing or at least managing illness or disability revolves around identifying the illness or disability from an in-depth clinical perspective (in the sense of the scientific understanding undertaken by trained healthcare providers), understanding it, and learning to control and/or alter its course.

By extension, the medical model also believes that a “compassionate” or just society invests resources in health care and related services in an attempt to cure disabilities medically, to expand functionality and/or improve functioning, and to allow disabled persons a more “normal” life. The medical profession’s responsibility and potential in this area is seen as central.

Because of its focus upon individuals, the medial model led to stereotyping and defining people by a condition or their limitations.

Social Model

The social model of disability emerged from the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) that redefined disability in 2001.  WHO declared disability an umbrella term with several components:

  • impairments: a problem in body function or structure
  • activity limitations: a difficulty encountered by a person in executing a task or action
  • participation restrictions:  a problem experienced by a person in involvement in life situations.

Thus, WHO separates the idea of disability from the idea of impairment.  It identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) as contributory factors in disabling people.  This model promotes the notion that while physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.

This perspective has had a profound effect upon the museum community for people with disabilities strive for equality in all areas of life including museum visitorship and participation.  It thus becomes incumbent upon museums to ensure that their facility, exhibitions and programs are inclusive.

Definition of disability

  • A diagnosis
  • A medical “problem”
  • A person is limited and defined by the impairment or condition
  • A social and environmental issue that deals with accessibility, accommodations, and equity
  • Individuals with temporary or permanent impairments require accommodations to live full and independent lives

Strategies to address disability

  • Fix the individual
  • Correct the deficit within the individual
  • Provide medical, vocational, or psychological rehabilitation services
  • Remove barriers: physical, intellectual, cultural and educational
  • Create access through accommodations, universal design, and inclusive learning environments

Role of person with disability

  • Object of intervention
  • Patient
  • Research subject
  • Community member
  • Participant in cultural discourse
  • Decision maker
  • Customer, museum patron, artist, critic



Additional Resources for exploring the Medical and Social perspectives on individuals with disabilities include:

  • Art Beyond Sight: Disability awareness training page
  • Dodd, Jocelyn, Ceri Jones, Debbie Joly, and Richard Sandell. (2010) “Disability Reframed: Challenging visitor perceptions in the museum,” in Richard Sandell, Jocelyn Dodd, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, eds., Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, New York: Routledge, pp. 92-111.
  • Oliver, Michael. (1996) “The Social Model in Context,” in Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Pp. 30-42.

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