banner one Key concepts


The Social Model of Disability (SMD) provides a way of thinking about how we can better understand disability and how services and supports can be designed and delivered to people with disabilities.

According to the SMD, people with an impairment experience disability when they encounter barriers in both the physical environment and from other people. These barriers can be removed by making changes to services, structures, and how people interact so that they accommodate for the needs of people of all abilities. These accommodations are also known as reasonable adjustments.

Society has an understanding of reasonable adjustments for people with mobility impairments. Hence, a person in a wheelchair won’t be disabled in terms of accessing a building if there are ramps, and doors that open with little effort and close slowly. We will return to this concept later.

When a society considers the diversity of its members and is fully inclusive, there are benefits to everyone. In fact, there is a growing trend to move away from thinking about access for people with disability to universal design: that is, creating an environment, such as a physical or learning environment, that is likely to be understood and used by as many people as possible. An example of universal design is converting a legal document to a plain language version. Only people with legal training may be able to fully understand the original legal document, but a plain language version will be useful to most people who can read. Converting it to a spoken recording will further increase the number of people who can access the information.

In contrast to the SMD is the Medical Model of Disability (MMD). The focus of a MMD is the person’s underlying impairment – both diagnosing and treating it. Structures and services are organised around fixing the person’s impairment or problems, with the individual with the impairment expected to change. In addition, interventions are developed to treat the underlying problems or issues, often as the first step before the person is allowed to participate in the same activities as others. As an example, a student with Down syndrome may need to learn a certain number of words before she can join her school peers in a story activity.

Within a school setting, the experiences of both being included and excluded according to these models are illustrated below:

On the left of this figure is how students with disability would experience education under the Medical Model of Disability. Here the focus is on fixing the student by improving skills or eliminating problem behaviours.

The attitude of professionals reflects ableism – that is, believing that a student with disability can’t learn the same as the other students learn, and therefore, needs a different curriculum.

Physical spaces may not be accessible to the student – there may be barriers or changes that are hard for the student to navigate or the space may not meet the student’s learning needs. Examples include frequent changes in classroom layout that create obstacles for a student with mobility problems, or open classrooms that are very noisy and are unpleasant for a student with hearing problems or on the autism spectrum.

On the right of this figure is how students with disability would experience education under the Social Model of Disability. Here the focus is on adjusting the physical, social and learning environment to meet each student’s needs so that they can participate in all activities alongside other students without disability.

Under the Social Model of Disability, it’s assumed that students will be able to learn the standard curriculum with the right adjustments and supports – and these are integrated across the classroom and school.

All staff and peers have a role to play in increasing inclusion of students with disability.

All spaces are accessible to meet each student’s needs, so potential barriers are removed or are redesigned.

Examples include removing potential obstacles or educating the students about ways to move around them so they can still meet class learning objectives, or having learning spaces within a classroom that can be used by any student who may need an area with few distractions.

Classroom resources, such as additional staff, can be used across the classroom or school, rather than being attached to a specific student. In this way, all staff are freed up to support all students according to their individual needs.

Addressing Need

The SMD has been criticised because specific interventions or supports that go beyond reasonable adjustments and are required by the person are not provided. This criticism is acknowledged here through proposing multi-tiered supports, which are often used within school education.