Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Why the social model of disability is the way forward for inclusion

Did you know there are more than ten different models of disability?

Models of disability aim to help us conceptualise our disability: what makes us ‘disabled’? How do we experience the world? In what ways are we separated from non-disabled people?

But with so many different models, it can be a real challenge to understand how we can best advocate for ourselves as disabled people.

For me, the answer lies in the social model of disability; a model that gives us all the tools to advocate for a future where we are truly welcomed and included.

What is the social model of disability?

The best way to approach the social model of disability is by comparing it to the medical model that is often all too familiar to disabled people. The medical model sees us as ‘people with disabilities’. We’ll be defined by our diagnoses and narratives about support will focus on what can be done to ‘fit us in’ or adjust to accommodate our needs. Under this model, you’ll often hear people talk about ‘cures’ and ‘impairments’. The message of the medical model is that our difference is a problem and, most importantly, that it’s our problem.

The social model flips this conversation on its head. Under the social model, I’m not a person with a disability, I’m a disabled person. I am actively being disabled by the exclusionary barriers that are placed in front of me by a society and environment that is specifically designed to include a very small subset of people. But if those barriers didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be ‘disabled’ in the same way I am now. A wheelchair user might find themselves disabled in front of a flight of stairs, but not necessarily in front of a lift.

And this seemingly simple shift in language has transformative effects. When I realised that my disability wasn’t a deficit – that it was society at fault, not me – it changed my life. Although the barriers may be just as present as they were before, acknowledging the social model relieved me of the heavy burden of self-advocating (sometimes even pleading) just to be allowed to access a space. I stopped apologising for asking to be included and started recognising that, by pointing out inaccessible practices, I was doing people a favour. Because we now have so much evidence that inclusion benefits everyone. In the case of businesses, for example, the organisations that commit to genuine, barrier-breaking, inclusive practice are rewarded with greater profits, higher productivity and happier employees.

The social model allows for an intersectional understanding of disability

Focusing on the societal barriers that create disabling environments also gives us space to recognise how disability so often intersects with other aspects of our identity. Although some of the barriers we face are physical, many of them are less visible; they relate to attitudes, prejudices and behaviours. In this sense, our disablement may be amplified by other marginalised aspects of our identity such as our sexuality, race, gender, class, or age.

This offers us an explanation as to why disability inclusion initiatives are so often unsuccessful. Across diversity and inclusion work, our identities are segmented and split into silos, where each aspect of us is addressed separately.

When Diversity and Ability deliver inclusion training and consultancy to organisations, we see how organisations address different aspects of diversity in silos. It’s a common approach, but one that just doesn’t work: as Audre Lorde said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”. Queer, disabled women like me don’t just face discrimination relating to their gender, sexual orientation and disability; we also experience specific discrimination due to the intersections of those identities.

We can only uphold a social model of disability when we take an intersectional approach to address exclusionary barriers. If you’re a business leader, think about your employee resource groups and what experiences they represent. If you have a resource group for disabled employees, but only have white members, you’re not addressing the barriers faced by disabled employees, just the barriers faced by white disabled employees.

Use the social model to acknowledge the complexity our identities, and the subsequent complexity of the barriers we face. Use this knowledge to create a new approach to diversity and inclusion that genuinely works for everyone.

How can we take the social model from talk into action?

We, as disabled people, can get pretty tired of hearing about inclusive principles and not seeing any change in practice. It’s what my colleague Adam Hyland, Director of Accessibility and Inclusion at D and A, has termed ‘small print inclusion’.

We see it when buildings offer ramp access, but only if we request it in advance; when, in our virtual meetings, classes and events, we have to ask for captions to be enabled; and when we’re told a workplace can accommodate reasonable adjustments, but only if we jump through multiple hoops to access them.

So, what can we do to make inclusive practice a reality?

At Diversity and Ability, we know the answer lies with an anticipatory welcome. It means that diversity isn’t just accepted; it’s expected. Rather than us having to ask a business to put the ramp out for us, it’s already there. Captions are automatically available. Our workplaces don’t just mention reasonable adjustments at the end of a long company policy; they shout from the rooftops about every adaptation and option that’s available to us without us even having to ask.

So, what’s next?

Make time to listen to disabled people, amplify our voices and respect our lived experience. Follow disabled activists and creators on social media, listen to and support your friends and family, and find events where disabled voices and experiences are at the forefront.

You’ll discover that difference isn’t a deficit, it’s a strength, and one we’ll all benefit from if we allow that difference the space to thrive.


Diversity and Ability is a social enterprise led by and for disabled people. You can learn more about how to make the changes that matter for inclusion by joining them for their two-day conference, ‘What Inclusion Looks Like’, at Hilton Brighton Metropole. Buy your tickets at diversityandability.com/conference.

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