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High school students sit at groups in a classroom. Two teachers are interacting with different groups and one is referring to a diagram at the front of the room.
Understanding the social model of disability can help us think about the barriers that disable differently-abled people.

The social model of disability

Professor Mike Oliver (1945-2019) criticised the medical model for the barriers it produces and instead promoted the social model of disability.

The social model distinguishes between impairment and disability. Impairment is the term used to describe a physical characteristic (such as muscle paralysis or low vision), while disability is the result of the physical, environmental, attitudinal and/or societal barriers that exist. These barriers are external to the person.

Examples of barriers are:

  • the absence of a ramp or lift, preventing a person who uses a wheelchair from accessing a public building
  • instructions given using complex words and sentences, meaning that students with language difficulties cannot understand what their teacher is saying
  • video shown without closed captions, meaning a person with hearing impairment cannot access the dialogue, sound effects or other non-speech sounds in the video.

When a person with an impairment faces barriers, their ability to participate in everyday activities and experiences is restricted. This is not a result of their impairment; it is an outcome of ableist design.

Watch it

As well as being Australia’s youngest senator, Jordon Steele-John is also a disability advocate who explains, ‘It’s time to talk about disability differently. It’s time to build our places and spaces differently, change attitudes and recognise that we are all different and unique.’

You can watch the video on YouTube where it has been posted by Ability Links.

We need to talk about disability (2:24)

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