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The Social Model Alternative

The origins of the Social Model lie in the ‘experience’ of people with disabilities and their struggle against institutional control.

Mike Oliver (1990; 1991; 1996) insists that disability is wholly and exclusively nothing to do with the body. Instead, it is a consequence of social oppression. In other words, by creating inaccessible buildings, modes of transport and inflexible workplaces for example, our society creates disabilities by restricting access, participation and inclusion. As Rehabilitation Counsellors, our goal is to work through these barriers by negotiating with employers and advocating on behalf of our clients to open up possibilities for meaningful employment. More on this in Week 2.

Watch the Scope - About Disability video for more insight into the social model and some inspiration for ideas on what you’d like to see change in our world.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

The Social Model of Disability is a major reference point for progressive disability politics and disability studies research. It emerged from political and academic developments in the United Kingdom during the 1970’s.

What was happening at the time?

Members of the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) were frustrated by the two available choices they had to explain disability. Namely,

  • impairments make people with a disability incapable of social functioning; or
  • society is constructed by people with capabilities for people with capabilities and this is what makes people with impairments incapable of functioning (Finkelstein, 2001, p.2).

This frustration led to a document known as the Fundamental Principles of Disability (1976). For the first time, a view about disablement was promoted that did not connect disability to the body. Read the following excerpt from page 4 of the document.

In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. To understand this, it is necessary to grasp the distinction between the physical impairment and the social situation, called ‘disability’, of people with such impairment. Thus we define impairment as lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body; and disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities

Read more about the contrasts between the Social and Medical Models of Disability here.

Shortcomings of the Social Model of Disability

One regular criticism is that the model’s focus on the social creation of disablement diminishes the importance of the experience of impairment. Some social theorists have attempted to bring the body/mind perspective back in from the cold as a result of this. The goal is to always ensure people’s personal experience of physical restrictions or illness are not dismissed. In other words, it’s important to consider the lived experience of people with disability and have their voices at the centre of this discourse.

The Social Model has its critics, but it’s important to note that whilst many theorists have concerns about the model, they do not reject its central propositions. Instead, they believe that it is possible to reformulate or extend the model.

There is no doubt that whatever issues arise from having a particular disability, it is society’s responses to it that really count. In other words, issues such as stigma, inclusion and exclusion are what impacts dramatically on the person’s lived experience. The challenge is in deciding what to do about it!

Your task

Does rethinking disability in terms of the social model change your perspective on the career potential of people with disability?

Select the comments link to post your response.


Finkelstein, V. (2001). The social model of disability repossessed. Manchester Coalition of Disabled People

Oliver, M. (1990). The Politics of Disablement. London: Macmillan.

Oliver, M. (Ed.). (1991). Social Work, Disabled People and Disabling Environments. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding Disability, from Theory to Practice. London: Macmillan.

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This article is from the free online course:

Realising Career Potential: Rethinking Disability

Griffith University