The Social Models of Disability

What is it?

In the 1970 and 80s disabled people came together to start a political movement - Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS). They rejected the medical view of disability, with doctors and experts telling them how to live, and campaigned for social equality for people with impairments and recognition that it was society that was disabling them through isolation, segregation, and imposing a label of disability.

This way of thinking - separating disability and impairment - exposes disability as a form of oppression and how society produces social barriers that fail to take disabled people's needs into account.


Impairment - a characteristic of the mind, body or senses within an individual which is long term and may, or may not, be the result of disease, genetics or injury

Disability - the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by the political, economic and cultural norms of a society which takes little or no account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream activity


Physical barriers - Steps, revolving doors, unsuitable public transport systems

Social barriers - Pity charity, presumption of inability to perform certain tasks, generalising from physical disability to mental disability


  • Challenge to conceptual distinction between impairment and disability
  • Takes insufficient account of living with an impairment -e.g. harsh realities of tiredness, limited social interaction
  • Ignores the body - may be disabled by society but are also disabled by their body
  • Definition of disability should be amended to include any 'socially produced oppression' that undermines a person with impairments' psycho-emotional well-being

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