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The Social Model of Disability

Published 27th June 2024

At Shaw Trust our work is guided by the social model of disability. We also support the identity model, which is closely related to the social model and emphasizes disability as a positive identity.  

The social model of disability 

The social model of disability recognises society runs in ways that are disabling. It says disability is created by a society that creates barriers that make life harder for disabled people. The social model says people are disabled by these barriers, not by their impairment or difference.  

Barriers can be:  

  • Physical  

Buildings not having ramps or accessible toilets.  

  • Attitudinal  

Believing that disabled people can’t do certain things. 

The social model helps us understand that removing these barriers improves equality and inclusion.  

The social model of disability explains that impairment and disability mean different things.  

An impairment is the physical or mental difficulty a person experiences. A disability is the experience of not being able to take part in society because of the barriers you face.  

The social model of disability was developed by disabled people in the late 20th century, including Mike Oliver.  

The identity model of disability 

People who use the identity model of disability feel comfortable with their disability. They believe disability is a shared experience of society not being designed for disabled people.  

The identity model of disability believes disability is about membership much like gender or race.  

The identity model says people can demand equal access for themselves and everyone else. (p. 5)Brewer et al. (2012) 

Talking about disability  

When we talk about disability at Shaw Trust, we are inclusive of all people who experience barriers because of an impairment or medical diagnosis, including those in the Deaf and neurodiverse communities.  

We appreciate that not all people identify as disabled and will always respect personal preferences.  

‘When we talk about disability at Shaw Trust, we are inclusive of all people who experience barriers because of an impairment or medical diagnosis’

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