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Disability in the Social and Political Context

‘I am disabled. More specifically, I am disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in my way. This world we live in disables me by treating me like a second-class citizen because I have a few impairments -- most obviously a mobility impairment.’1

The Social Model of Disability

For many years, the medical model has been the dominant approach to disability. This model locates the ‘problem’ of disability in the body of the individual, rather than in society itself or in the way the deviant body is perceived. According to this medical model, ‘disability’ is a health condition dealt with by medical professionals, with ‘disability’ seen to be a ‘problem’ of the individual. From the medical model, a person with disability is in need of being fixed or cured. The medical model of disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be. This viewpoint is no longer acceptable. Internationally, the recognised way to view and address ‘disability’ is the social model of disability. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) marked the official paradigm shift in attitudes towards people with disability and approaches to disability concerns. This was ratified by Australia in 2008.

The social model seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others. The social model suggests that although people have impairments, the extent and nature of the disability they experience will be the result of the degree to which society supports their social, economic and cultural participation. The social model of disability does not deny the reality of an impairment or the impact it may have on the individual, but it does carry the implication that the ‘physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others’.

Supporting this model of disability, the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) ‘mainstreams’ the experience of disability and recognises it as a universal human experience. The ICF takes into account the social aspects of disability and does not see disability only as a 'medical' or 'biological' dysfunction. It views the restriction of participation in activities as central to disability, placing emphasis on impact rather than cause; disability can therefore occur to a greater or lesser extent depending on the fluctuating nature of individual and environmental factors, with environmental factors making up the physical, social and attitudinal environment in which people live and conduct their lives.

Within Australia, there continues to be a need to put the explicit commitment to social and economic participation, via ratification of international conventions, into visible outcomes. This will ensure that the physical, attitudinal, and social environments within our country are enabling and engaging for all individuals with or without impairment.

Related Resources


    Australian Institute for Health & Wellbeing (AIHW), Australian Government 2002. Introduction to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF).  Accessed on 15 December 2014. Sourced from

    Australian Law Reform Commission 2013. Equality, Capacity and Disability in Commonwealth Laws IP 44. Viewed 16 December 2014. Sourced from

    1 Egan, L. 2012. ‘I'm not a "Person with a Disability": I'm a Disabled Person’. XO Jane. 10 November. Accessed on 15 December 2014. Sourced from (Nov 2019  - URL no longer available). Can access via 

    People with Disability Australia Incorporated (PWDA). (nd). ‘The social model’. Accessed on 15 December 2014. Sourced from