Skip to content

Breaking down barriers with the Social Model of Disability

Barriers to access

With International Day of People with Disabilities just around the corner, chances are you’ll see lots of articles talking about ‘disabled people’ and ‘people with disabilities’. But does it matter what phrase you use? According to the Social Model of Disability, it does.

‘Person with a disability’ is considered person-first language as it focuses on the person first and the disability second and in some cultures is the preferred expression. It believes people aren’t a disability, condition or diagnosis, so labelling someone as a disabled person could be perceived as disrespectful.

While that all sounds positive and is the approved term used by many organisations, the Social Model takes issue with the fact it implies disability is something someone has. In contrast, ‘disabled person’ recognises that disability is something that is done to people with impairments by a world that doesn’t allow them to participate or flourish. This is the terminology preferred by disabled people in the UK.

This nuance in language might seem inconsequential, but it provides a valuable insight into why society isn’t as inclusive as it could be.

We take a look at how the Social Model puts the onus back on society to empower disabled people to live their best lives.   

What is the Social Model of Disability?  

Developed by disabled people, the Social Model of Disability asserts that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or condition.

A good example of this in action is when Israeli minister Karine Elharrar was unable to attend COP26. It wasn’t her impairment that stopped her, it was because the building wasn’t wheelchair accessible.

Lift Out of Use

And that’s the crux of the Social Model. Also known as the ‘barriers-approach’, it not only identifies society as the cause of disability, it provides insight into how society does this and how it can be addressed. To put it another way, if the world was set up in a way that was 100% accessible to disabled people, they wouldn’t be excluded or face discrimination.

Why was the Social Model developed?

The Social Model was developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a direct reaction to the Medical Model, which up to that point had been the accepted view on disability.

The Medical Model says people are disabled by their impairments or differences and focuses on what is ‘wrong with’ someone rather than what they need.

There is also a Functional Model of Disability which is similar to the Medical one and believes disability limits the functioning or ability of someone to carry out functional activities.

What these models have in common is the impairment is the focus of attention, not the person.

So, under the Medical Model a disabled child would be considered dysfunctional. If they can’t be fixed or cured, they won’t be able to function normally, so other people will need to take decisions for them.  Society doesn’t need to change as it’s the child that is the problem.  

The Medical Model doesn’t expect that child to achieve anything and they will face losing their independence, choice and control over their life.

Under the Social Model the same child would be seen as someone with equal rights to everyone else. The focus would be on addressing the barriers the child faces in everyday life, rather than the child having to change who they are. The result – independence, choice, control and inclusion.

The Social Model not only reflects disabled people’s real-life experiences but also crucially puts forward practical approaches to the barriers faced which in turn helps society evolve to be more inclusive.

What barriers does the Social Model identify?

The Social Model identifies a number of areas where life is made harder for disabled people because of the barriers in society. These can be broadly broken down into the following areas.


Remember the outrage about the lack of sign language at the Covid briefings?   This is an example of a barrier caused by society and not by someone’s impairment. More importantly it’s a barrier that could, and was, easily removed.  

Other communication barriers include information not being provided in different accessible formats such as Easy Read or plain English, videos not being captioned or not producing Braille or electronic versions for people who use screen readers.


Language is so much more than just words. It reflects our culture, our perceptions and even how we behave. The Social Model rejects terms such as ‘handicapped’, ‘wheelchair bound’ and ‘retarded’ as they only serve to reinforce negative views of disabled people and more damagingly paint them as powerless victims. Instead, it focuses on language such as ‘disabled person’ and ‘wheelchair user’.

It also makes an important distinction between impairment and disability. The Social Model states that people have impairments, not disabilities. An impairment is an individual’s physical, sensory or cognitive difference, while a disability is the result of the consequences of having an impairment. In other words, people with impairments are disabled by a society unwilling to cater for their needs.

Physical barriers

Barriers to wheelchairs

No lifts, badly designed buildings, stairs rather than ramps – these are all examples of physical barriers disabled people face on a daily basis. And that’s before we start thinking about poor lighting, no parking places, inaccessible transport, poorly managed public spaces and inaccessible toilets and housing.

Attitudinal barriers

We’ve already mentioned the impact language can have on how people are viewed and treated, so it’s not surprising a lot of assumptions exist around what disabled people can and can’t do.

The Select Committee Report on the disability employment gap unequivocally blames the inadequate support systems put in place to help disabled people find and stay in work, while The Right to a Relationship report looks at how the rights of people with learning difficulties to have a sexual relationship are being systematically breached.

And then there are the worrying views about how disabled people shouldn’t be seen as they are upsetting or are nothing but scroungers. The list goes on.

The Social Model in action

In a completely inclusive world, all buildings would include ramps, towns would be designed with wheelchair users in mind, people would be asked up front about reasonable adjustments in the workplace rather than having to ask, and sign language would be default on all TV programmes.

While that may be a way off, it’s great that hotels such as Langley Park Hotel & Spa are going above and beyond to make their venue accessible. As well as making guestrooms, car parking and the swimming pool with changing facilities fully accessible, they also provide mobility scooters for guests to enjoy all areas of the estate.  A positive step that many more should emulate.

But maybe the first thing we should focus on is getting the official title changed from ‘International Day of Persons with Disabilities’ to ‘International Day of Disabled People’.