Cover Image - Why The Social Model Of Disability Is Better Than The Medical Model Of Disability

Why I Think The Social Model of Disability Is Better Than the Medical Model

By Rebecca Witonsky

The Social Model of Disability vs The Medical Model of Disability

The social model of disability was formed in Britain by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation.  People with physical disabilities founded  the modern civil rights movement for disabled people.  UPIAS sought to challenge segregation of disabled people and promote better work conditions and integration into society.

In 1976, the UPIAS argued,  “It is society that disables physically impaired people.  Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society….Having low incomes… is a consequence of our isolation and segregation in every area of life, such as education, work, mobility, housing.”

In 1983, disabled academic Mike Oliver coined the term “social model of disability.”   This model defines disabled people as an oppressed minority and says society is responsible for their mistreatment.  The social model of disability distinguishes between social oppression and functional limitation, between impairment and disability.

The social model of disability defines disability as a social creation imposed by mainstream culture, while the medical model of disability approaches it as an individual deficit.  The medical model focuses upon cure and rehabilitation of disabled individuals.  The social model focuses upon transforming the external culture by removing barriers and promoting anti-discrimination legislation.

The social model develops a clear agenda for social change and is the “big idea” of the British disability movement.  Oliver argued that this concept is a “practical tool” which explains that disabled people face problems due to social oppression and not due to individual deficit.

The social model of disability has restored the self esteem of people with disabilities.  Giving disabled people the tools to challenge this oppression has liberated them from fear imposed by mainstream society.  As an autistic person who has been persecuted by employers and society due to my social skills deficit, I find this model liberating and empowering.

How Can the Social Model Be Improved?

However, this model was founded by white heterosexual men with physical disabilities and must be transformed to accommodate people with other disabilities such as deafness, blindness,  autism, and mental health conditions.  The model also does not discuss the problems of disabled people who face multiple forms of discrimination.  Black and Hispanic disabled people also face racism, and disabled women face sexism.  Black disabled women face triple discrimination of racism, sexism, and anti-disability oppression.  As a Jewish woman, I face discrimination based on my religion, gender, and disability.

The concept of disability should be replaced with difference; my autism is not a disability but simply a neurological difference.  Mainstream society should be educated about the challenges faced by people with disabilities so they are not threatened by disabled people.   Society also must be pressured to end economic exploitation and segregation against disabled people.  The American practice of paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage in a segregated “sheltered workshop” violates the rights of disabled people to be integrated into the mainstream workforce and paid comparable wages as non-disabled people.  These workshops must be abolished, and their members must be transitioned into competitive integrated employment.

Ending Discrimination 

The social model argues that discrimination against people with disabilities can be eliminated.  It draws a distinction between impairment and disability.  Impairment is a physical, cognitive, or sensory difference.  Disability is a social construct which discriminates against disabled people and can be removed.

However, impairment and disability cannot always be separated in everyday life.  A woman with multiple sclerosis may be depressed, but it is hard to determine to what extent her depression is caused by physical factors as opposed to social oppression.

The disability rights movement was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement and started when disabled people questioned their segregation and oppression.  The movement was launched by and for people with disabilities.  This approach allowed them to promote their own liberation and envision a better society.  The social model of disability demands social change as the means of liberating disabled people from their oppression and challenges the tendency to define them by their impairments.  This model reframes the disability issue as a civil rights struggle rather than a charitable or medical problem.

The social model denies the reality that people with disabilities face impairments and that abolishing discrimination against disabled people would not end their impairments.  Many disabled people find it harder to celebrate disability than it is to celebrate blackness, gayness, or womanhood.  Would you want to celebrate being unable to walk without a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy?

However, the social model explains systemic employment discrimination against disabled people as a form of social and economic oppression which denies disabled people the right to participate equally in society with non-disabled people.  When coupled with physical segregation as in sheltered workshops, this form of discrimination is a grave human rights violation.  However, the social model of disability fails to consider the fact that disability is a function of both impairment and social oppression.

The medical model of disability focuses on the weaknesses and deficits of the disabled person.  This model argues that the person can’t walk, can’t see, hear, and mount steps and needs to be segregated, pitied, and cured, and be dependent upon aides. The charitable model of disability assumes that the disabled person needs segregated charitable services such as sheltered workshops to isolate them from the mainstream workforce.

Barriers on the Disabled 

The social model of disability is a civil rights approach to disability.  It argues that the problem lies with mainstream social institutions that exclude people with disabilities via segregation in special schools and employment settings.   Society imposes three types of barriers upon disabled people:

  • Cultural and attitudinal barriers which limit employment opportunities and block disabled people from reaching their full potential. Society argues that disabled people shouldn’t or can’t work or study and be allowed to marry and have children.
  • Physical barriers which disempower people with physical disabilities. These issues include inaccessible buildings, toilets, and housing and poor lighting which keep people with disabilities in captivity
  • Informational and communication barriers that limit options for people with disabilities.

Identifying the barriers can suggest solutions to these problems, such as educating society about the strengths of people with disabilities in the workplace.  Disabled people should be allowed to marry and have children.

The solution also includes reducing or eliminating the physical barriers which prevent the full integration of people with disabilities into mainstream society.  Buildings, transportation systems, toilets, and housing need to be made more accessible for people with disabilities.

Impairment vs Disability

The social model of disability suggests a distinction between impairment and disability.  Impairment is a sensory, physical, or cognitive difference, while disability is a social construct that creates barriers which can be overcome. The social model supports the following solutions to end the oppression against people with disabilities in mainstream society:

  • Equal employment opportunities and a secure income
  • Adequate personal care for people with physical disabilities
  • Inclusive education and training
  • Ending segregated work environments such as sheltered workshops in which the disabled person is paid less than minimum wage for their work
  • Accessible, adaptable, and affordable housing and transportation
  • disability organizations run by and for people with disabilities

The social model of disability produced improved employment opportunities for people with disabilities and a lower employment gap for people with disabilities in the UK than the USA. In the USA, only 19.1% of disabled people were employed, compared with 63.7% of non-disabled people.  The employment gap between people with disabilities and non-disabled people is 44.6%.

In the UK in 2020, 52.3% of disabled people were employed, compared with 81.1% of non-disabled people.  Thus, the employment gap in the UK between disabled people and non-disabled people is 28.8%.  The lower employment gap between disabled people and non-disabled people in the UK suggests that the social model of disability has increased employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the UK.

The high employment gap in the USA between disabled people and non-disabled people suggests that the Americans with Disabilities Act is not an effective mechanism for expanding employment opportunities for disabled people.  This law was supposed to ban employment discrimination against people with disabilities, yet employers still openly discriminate against disabled people.  The main barrier to improved economic outcomes for people with disabilities is social and cultural prejudice against disabled people.

The social model of disability helps explain employment discrimination against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in American sheltered workshops.  The segregation and economic exploitation of people with disabilities in sheltered workshops is blatant employment discrimination which can be compared with Southern racial segregation of black people.

The social mode of disabilities is a liberating approach which overcomes the medical model’s belief that people with disabilities need to be fixed or cured and instead argues that society needs to be transformed to accommodate people with disabilities.  By distinguishing between disability and impairment, it breaks down barriers and expands opportunities for people with disabilities.  As an autistic person, I find this model liberating because it suggests society should accommodate my social skills deficit rather than punishing me for being unable to conform to its expectations of social conformity.  It also creates a vision for people with disabilities to reach their full potential in school, work, housing, and transportation.



Disabled people in employment (

Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary – 2021 A01 Results (

Persons with a Disability: Barriers to Employment and Other Labor-Related Issues News Release – 2021 A01 Results (

Author Image

Rebecca Witonsky was the founder and president of Essential Business Planning. EBP produced business plans for companies to attract venture capital and bank loans. She created business plans for two companies that she launched herself, namely Private Equity Research which involved the publication of a Latin America newsletter that successfully targeted investment banks, venture capital, and law firms, and a private tutoring service. She has found successful investments in the US and Latin America, including the public company America Movil and the private company Mercado Libre. She also wrote business plans for two firms in the disability sector.
Rebecca discovered her autism at age 36. This discovery changed her life and empowered her to help other people with disabilities. To that end, she worked as an adjunct instructor of personal finance and entrepreneurship at Marino Campus, which served young adults with developmental disabilities. She served on the board of Leadership and Economic Empowerment for Developmental Disabilities which provides entrepreneurship services to the disabled population. From 2013 to 2020, she served on the Florida Rehabilitation Council which monitors the state vocational rehabilitation system. She delivered oral presentations before the Broward County Society of Human Resources in 2015 and the Florida Rehabilitation Council in 2016 about employment issues facing the disabled population.
Her educational background consists of a BA in international relations from Brown University and a masters degree in taxation from Florida Atlantic University.
She currently works as a researcher and writer for Griffin Hammis Associates, a national disability policy consultancy. This role includes preparing reports on the self employment policies of all the vocational rehabilitation(VR) and blind VR agencies around the country. It also entails researching the issue of subminimum wage workshops for people with disabilities. The role also includes training to become a benefits planner for people with disabilities.
She is fluent in Spanish and has an intermediate reading knowledge of Russian language. Her special interest is Russian studies and international relations, and she is planning to become fluent in Russian. She is working on a book about the Russian-Ukraine war and the Russian democratic anti-war movement.
She can be reached via email at