The Social Model of Disability

The Social Model of Disability underpins everything we do at WECIL.

People often think about disability in terms of “What’s wrong with you and how can we fix you?” If you can’t be fixed then you may not be able to take part in activities until a solution can be found to your ‘problem’. This is called the Medical Model of Disability.

Disabled people’s organisations think about disability in a different way. A person has an impairment or long-term health condition that affects how they carry out tasks in daily life. They have the right to take part fully in activities along with everyone else but the way that society is organised means that things that can get in the way and prevent them from doing so (what we call barriers). Society can be designed so that it does not disable people. This is called the Social Model of Disability. 

“Learning about the social model, and coming away from the blame culture of the medical model helped me to access the world more confidently. Being a wheelchair user and having an impairment isn’t my ‘fault’ – we should all be actively working to make the world more accessible.”

 – Imogen, WECIL client

Barriers for disabled people include:

  • Environmental barriers such as the way buildings, public spaces and transport systems are designed which mean disabled people can’t get into them or use them in the same way as everyone else.
  • Organisational barriers such as the way events, services or organisations are set up which mean that disabled people can’t access them or participate in them fully.
  • Attitudinal barriers such as stereotypes or prejudices, which assume that disabled people can’t make decisions for themselves or can’t do things when in fact they can.

If you ask “What can be done to remove barriers which prevent people from taking part in everyday life?” you are using Social Model thinking and being more inclusive.

Examples of Social Model thinking

Environmental barriers:

  • A wheelchair user wants to go to a music gig but there are steps into the venue.

The Medical Model says that the person’s physical ‘disability’ is stopping them from being able to walk up the stairs and enter.

The Social Model says that, if a ramp was provided, the person would be able to enter the building and go to the concert along with everyone else. So, it’s actually society that is ‘dis-abling’ that person by not having something in place that would enable them to do that.

Organisational barriers:

  • A visually impaired person wants to take part in a survey being run by their local parish council but the survey form is only available on paper in a small font.

The Social Model says that providing the documents in a different way, such as electronically or in a larger font, enables the person to access the information and have an equal opportunity to express their views.

Attitudinal barriers:

  • A person with a fluctuating health condition wants to apply for a job but the employer assumes they are likely to take a lot of sick leave.

The Social Model says that putting reasonable adjustments in place, such as a flexible working pattern, will enable the person to carry out the role and contribute their skills whilst at the same time managing their condition.

The language we use

You’ll notice we use the term ‘disabled person’ instead of ‘person with disabilities’. This is because we are thinking of a person being ‘disabled’ by society, rather than the person’s ‘disabilities’ being the problem.

We do describe disabled people as having impairments. An impairment is defined as long-term limitation of a person’s physical, mental or sensory function.



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