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More about the modern approach to disability

The modern understanding of disability has emerged as a reaction against the ‘medical model’. The medical model focuses on the bodily impairment of the individual rather than his/her potential despite sometimes-considerable impairment. This modern understanding is often called the ‘social model’ of disability, though even newer models are emerging.

The ‘medical model’
The medical model assumes that the difficulties disabled people face in society are an entirely natural consequence of the limitations imposed on the individual by their impairment or biology. Following this model’s approach, it is only after good health has been restored (i.e. they have been ‘repaired’) that equal opportunities in social life may prevail between disabled and non-disabled people.

The medical model proposes that in cases when improvement in health to the level perceived as normal for any given community is not possible, the person in question should receive assistance and support but when his/her inability to participate in social life on an equal footing with non-disabled persons, this is not discrimination.

The ‘medical model’ way of thinking was found unacceptable by many disabled people in the USA and the United Kingdom. These two countries have been pioneers in introducing wide-ranging anti-discrimination legislation, which has had a major impact upon changes in thinking about disability.

Moving away from the ‘medical model’
The modern understanding of disability is described using various models, most quoted being the social model prevalent in the United Kingdom and the minority model popular in the USA. They may differ as regards their philosophical roots, the social context in which they are implemented or methods of solving particular disability-related problems, yet they share the conviction that

  • disability is a result of interaction between a person manifesting some features (like ill health) and the physical, social or cultural environment surrounding him/her;
  • disability is not equivalent to dependence;
  • disability does not entail loss of one’s potential, productivity, ability to make a contribution in society, values, opportunities and other such qualities;
  • disability is a part of human life, and
  • there are much more differences between disabled people than between people in general.

  • The opposition between the old and new understanding of disability has been spelt out clearly in the Madrid Declaration, adopted by representatives of organisations acting on behalf of disabled people on the eve of the European Year of People with Disabilities. It reads as follows:
    1. Our vision can best be described as a contrast between this new vision and the old vision it seeks to replace:
    a)    AWAY FROM disabled people as objects of charity AND TOWARDS disabled people as rights holders;

    b)    AWAY FROM people with disabilities as patients AND TOWARDS people with disabilities as independent citizens and consumers;

    c)    AWAY FROM professionals taking decisions on behalf of disabled people AND TOWARDS independent decision making and taking responsibilities by disabled people and their organisations on issues which concern them;

    d)    AWAY FROM a focus on merely individual impairments AND TOWARDS removing barriers, revising social norms, policies, cultures and promoting a supportive and accessible environment;

    e)    AWAY FROM labelling people as dependants or unemployable AND TOWARDS an emphasis on ability and the provision of active support measures;

    f)    AWAY FROM designing economic and social processes for the few AND TOWARDS designing a flexible world for the many;

    g)     AWAY FROM unnecessary segregation in education, employment and other spheres of life AND TOWARDS integration of disabled people into the mainstream;

    h)    AWAY FROM disability policy as an issue that affects special ministries only AND TOWARDS inclusion of disability policy as an overall government responsibility.

     (Madrid, 20-24 March 2002)

    The staff at the Jagiellonian University Disability Support Team (BON UJ), the DARE Consortium, and its experts, all strive to promote the modern understanding of disability as summarised above.

    Such an approach makes a challenge for disabled people themselves and the rest of society, but it is not impossible to put it into practice. What is more, an even partial implementation of that model brings major benefits to society as a whole, in the form of gradual shrinking of the welfare zone replaced by active participation of disabled people in social life. This takes place mainly through education in its broadest scope and work on the open labour market.

    Additionally, the enhanced presence of disabled people in various aspects of social life results in a more open attitude of fellow citizens towards their problems, as well as bringing more tolerance and diversity in society.

    The preliminary results yielded by the DARE training courses clearly confirm the above conclusions. We hope that the DARE experiences will evolve into wider and highly positive ones. We also hope that this will result in diminishing the scope of social exclusion in the member states of the European Union.

    Article by:
    Małgorzata Perdeus-Białek
    Małgorzata is a doctoral Human Rights student at the Jagiellonian University specialising in disability.

    Uniwersytet Jagielloński
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