I currently have the absolute pleasure of delivering disability equality training around the UK to the staff of Shaw Trust. A key issue we explore is the Social Model of Disability. Like many organisations, they are committed to ensuring all staff design and deliver services which embody the social model.
But what is it?
Crucially, the social model was developed by disabled people themselves, in reaction to the traditional medical model. Both models seek to explain disabled people’s experiences and barriers but from very different perspectives. The medical model focuses on the individual’s impairment (eg being visually-impaired or experiencing mental health problems). Any barriers they face accessing buildings, services or social settings are caused by their impairment. In practice, you’d hear the medical model in the form of “Sarah can’t get into this bar because she can’t walk up the steps.” The individual and his/her impairment is the cause of the problem. If the person’s impairment isn’t curable or treatable, then the problem can’t be solved. A pretty bleak and old-fashioned perspective, but one which we experience every day.
In stark contrast, the social model looks at the barriers people face, not their impairments. The barriers are created by society and can be environmental, attitudinal or organisational in nature. Such barriers might include the failure to provide BSL interpreters at networking events, leaving an accessible WC crammed full of cleaning equipment, an office culture which discourages disclosure of mental health problems, buses and train stations without ramps. Who’s the focus now? All of us. All of us with the power to make our world more inclusive. And therein lies the solution to the problem.
Why is this important?
Frustratingly, most disabled people haven’t heard of the social model. It’s not taught in schools and unless you receive training in your workplace then how else does the message get shared? I struggled for 26 years feeling that my impairment was my cross to bear and that I shouldn’t impose ‘my limitations’ on my friends or colleagues. It’s a pretty isolating outlook and it’s hampered my career. Ironically, I wasn’t alone, as most disabled people have similar experiences and anxieties. Understanding the social model, as most of my disabled friends will agree, has been massively empowering. A problem shared ‘n all that. Not only has the weight of responsibility and urge to apologise for myself gone, but it’s given me hope. Why can’t I look forward to a future where transport becomes more accessible, more hoists are provided in the disabled toilets of public buildings and strangers stop talking to my support assistant like I’m invisible? I genuinely now have hope! My condition will never get any better, but my life experiences may improve.
All organisations who aspire to be progressive, enlightened and committed to social responsibility should give some thought to whether their practices reflect the social model. It doesn’t mean spending money on widened doors and fancy equipment. It’s simply away of thinking. Join the hundreds of organisations who embrace and commit to the model.
I’ll hand over here to some very eloquent figures and familiar faces from the disabled community who, like me, consider the social model to be a game changer.