Law and Disability: An Introduction to the Social Model of Disability

by | Feb 19, 2018

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About Abby Buttle

Abby Buttle is the current Oxford Human Rights Hub-Rhodes University Research Fellow. She holds an LLB from the London School of Economics (LSE), a BCL from the University of Oxford and an LLM from Harvard Law School.


Abby Buttle, “Law and Disability: An Introduction to the Social Model of Disability” (OxHRH Blog, 19 February 2018), <> [date of access].

“To pay attention to the words we use is not to be “politically correct” but to struggle for a language which describes the denial of our human rights, locates our experience of inequality as a civil rights issue, and, at the same time, creates a space to articulate our experience of our bodies.” – Dr Jenny Morris OBE, disability studies scholar.

One of the major challenges for disabled rights activists has been (and continues to be) the struggle to reclaim the meaning of ‘disability’. A misconception which prevails even today is that disability is a medical problem, residing in the individual, which must either be treated or managed. Many believe that this narrow, supposedly neutral view of disability has impeded the full recognition of disabled people’s human rights, because they are conceived as deficient or lacking in comparison to ‘normal’ human body of the medical imagination.

In response to the medicalised view, disability studies scholars promote a more nuanced understanding of disability, termed the ‘social model’. Underpinning the social model is a distinction between ‘impairment’, on the one hand, and ‘disablement’, on the other. While impairment refers to a physical or mental condition, disablement takes a broader perspective and refers to the disadvantage which is imposed on a person by a society which has failed to accommodate for that impairment. Such a failure may constitute physical barriers, such as inaccessible buildings, but they may also include discriminatory attitudes which prevent a disabled person from fully participating in her community.

In a similar way to feminists and critical race scholars, advocates of the social model seek to demonstrate the ways in which disability is socially constructed. It contends that the decision to provide accommodations for some individuals to function (from stairs to childcare) is a political one which is heavily influenced by a medicalised ideal of the ‘normal’ body. However, there is a divergence in opinion as to the extent to which the link between impairment and disability should be severed. One argument is that the disability rights movement should focus almost exclusively on the barriers which disabled people face in society, rather than analysing individual impairment. Some disabled feminists, however, have argued that such an approach removes the narrative from the individual with the impairment in a way that fails to take into account her lived experience of, for instance, pain and tiredness. Listening to individual experiences ensures that any policy response is sensitive to context and the many intersecting identities which a person may have.

Understanding the social model of disability is a crucial part of understanding the struggle for the disability rights. In 2009, it achieved international endorsement in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which reads:

“those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

The social model forces us to rethink entrenched views of the human body and the organisation of society. While there may be disputes over the exact contours of the concept in practice, it has undoubtedly been instrumental in challenging those who seek to define disabled people according to what they lack, as opposed to their equal dignity and status as human beings.

This is the first post in a series on disability and the law this week, culminating in the Oxford Disability Law and Policy Conference 2018.

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