How the Social Model of Disability Revolutionized My Life


For most of my life, I looked at my disabilities through the lens of a medical model: there was something broken about me, and I just had to suck it up and deal with it. But as I got older and the bravado of my youth faded, I began to feel more vulnerable, more disenfranchised, and — yes — angry.

Why did it take three long years to be awarded disability benefits for my mental health issues? Why did bus drivers assume I had no right to transit accommodations just because I didn’t “look” blind? Worst of all, why did police refuse to take me seriously when I was assaulted in a treatment setting?

The medical model gave me no answers, and no avenue for advocacy or empowerment. But my disabled activist friends did. Through them I learned about the social model of disability, which was absolutely life-changing.

In a nutshell, the social model asserts this: People with disabilities may have an impairment that impacts their functioning, but the real disabling impact comes from society’s refusal to accommodate, assist, and welcome their participation.

Let me give you a concrete example. I have a vision impairment that makes it unsafe for me to drive. The medical model weighs in on this limitation with a “Too bad, so sad, guess you have to depend on the kindness of other people for rides.” In other words: more sucking it up.

The social model, however, approaches my limitation differently. It takes the onus off me, and places it on a society that slashes funds for public transportation, makes paratransit nigh-near impossible to procure, and designs neighborhoods in suburban sprawl rather than walkable communities. Now, instead of being forced to just bootstrap it, I have concrete solutions I can advocate for.

Is it frustrating and sometimes demoralizing to have such an acute awareness of how society fails disabled people? Honestly, yes. But it’s also empowering to be part of an activist community working towards nothing less than a just society that respects and honors people like me.

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