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Muddling Through Models of Disability

My name is Phoebe Eden-Mann, and I am coming to the end of my fourth week as the national policy intern, here at CCS Disability Action in Dunedin. It’s been an intense four weeks; a trial by fire if you will. I’ve been exposed to theories and concepts that I’d never even heard of, written policy submissions on multiple issues, and had meetings with government officials. I’ve also found where the good coffee is hidden. Overall, I think it has been a fairly successful four weeks, and I am looking forward to what the next three months have to offer.

My background is in children’s geographies. Children’s geographies rests on the idea that children as a social group share certain characteristics which are experientially, politically and ethically significant and which are worthy of study. My focus is on the child’s experience within the world, and more recently, social work. I have always been passionate about children’s rights, and this has driven much of my academic focus.

One of the key things that has stood out to me since starting here has been the complexity of disability models, and how wide the scope of the disability sector is; it is not just limited to physical disabilities, but spans across from chronic illnesses to neurodiversity. I do not necessarily consider myself to be disabled, personally struggling with accepting that identity and the stigma and issues that surround the disability discourse. I have an autoimmune condition which can prove challenging in regards to mobility, as well as chronic pain.

However, over the past few weeks, I have been coming to terms with the concept that yes, I am a disabled young person, and no, that is not a bad thing. It is simply a small aspect of my life and a very small part of who I am as a person, and as Anita Silvers said “I am neither better or worse off; I am just different”. That being said, I am relatively lucky, having had a very supportive and loving home environment. I recognise that I am privileged in my circumstances, and that many disabled people are not afforded the same opportunities that I was.

One of my first tasks when I started my internship was to get to grips with some of the theories and models that inform the disability sector. Two of the key theories that I explored were the medical and social models. There is a significant split between the two, with supporters and critics on both sides. The social model of disability argues that disability is primarily a result of a social phenomenon caused by social oppression and prejudices.

This contrasts with the medical model, which views disability as more of an issue that needs to be addressed by medical experts. The social model was developed to counteract the individualistic and disempowering nature of the medical model. Rather than viewing disabilities as the issue, proponents of the social model argue that the primary issues lie not with the condition (or ‘impairments’ in their terms), that a person may have, but with society’s lack of inclusiveness and accessibility. It is the exclusion that disabled people face that poses the true issue, not the impairments themselves. I understand this. I appreciate people’s desire to shift the focus to the barriers that society poses for disabled people.

By shifting the responsibility onto social barriers, it becomes significantly easier to deal with for a disabled person; I’m not limited in my options because I have crutches, I am limited in my options because society has placed many unnecessary barriers in front of me. A sentiment that to an extent I agree with. There are many barriers and pitfalls that as a disabled person one must overcome. None of them are fair, and it does make life significantly more taxing than it would for an able-bodied person. But that being said, it is important to recognise that even if the world was perfectly accessible, with much of the social oppression and stigma surrounding disabilities tackled and addressed, disability does not simply disappear.

I would still rely on crutches. I would still have an autoimmune condition. I would still struggle more to get through the day than if I was a healthy bodied individual. I applaud the movement to address the social barriers that are faced by disabled people. I support the notion that our world must be accessible for all. I am concerned that by entirely shifting the focus to social barriers, we may lose sight of the unique experiences of disabled people. Individual experiences are key, and should not be extinguished within our community in favour of a unanimous voice. Instead, following on from Tom Shakespeare’s more recent work, I would argue that neither model is wholly faultless. The medical model places too much importance on expert based solutions and the voices of disabled people are often lost; and the social model has the potential to silence the unique and very valid individual experiences in favour of collective will.

With that in mind, I find myself at somewhat of a loss as to which model (if any model) to align myself with. At this point in time, I believe that there should be a middle ground between the models, with aspects of both informing decision making. Moving forward with my internship and experiences within the disability sector, I will continue to evolve my understandings of the theories and frameworks; figuring out where my views best fit.