The Medical model - is disability created by impairment?

2008-08-10 by

The Medical model identifies disability in terms of impairment: disability is the result of physical, mental or sensory impairments that prevent a person from living, working and being part of society in the same way as non-disabled people. The medical model is perhaps the most widespread theory that consciously or unconsciously people use to make sense of disability.

The medical model focuses on impairment and loss of functionality: it encourages the idea that disability is only a condition affecting the individual. Therefore it might seem that the disadvantages faced by disabled people are the result of their own personal condition rather than any failings in society or barriers in the built environment.

Initiatives based on the Medical model often help disabled people by focusing on finding a cure or medical intervention to help the person lead a ‘normal’ life. These interventions might involve surgery, prosthetic limbs or cochlear implants – for example.

Public policies derived from this model place resources towards healthcare and rehabilitation. Separate (or segregated) public services may also be provided for disabled people such as ‘special’ education.

For example: a person with cerebral palsy who uses an electric wheelchair cannot enter a building because of steps to the main entrance. The Medical model of disability poses no solution to this situation because it focuses on “what’s wrong” with that individual’s body or function. There is nothing that can be done if all medical solutions have been exhausted. Short of carrying the disabled person or physically lift them and their chair up the steps and into the building, ultimately they are excluded. The medical model view of disability unfortunately encourages people to step back and avoid making an effort to be inclusive because ‘they are not doctors’ or there is ‘nothing they can do’.

The Medical model only identifies faults in the person’s body or faculties, it does not provide a solution that goes beyond a cure or aid or a prosthetic. This is why many service providers feel that providing a more inclusive service to disabled people is out of their remit.

The greatest majority of disabled people have gotten over their impairment and want to get on with life. They’ve been operated on, observed, prodded, analysed, medicated, labelled and have now had enough. They now want to live with their disability and participate in society like everyone else. Medical solutions stop with the person and do not consider what can be done in our enviroments and our attitudes to better accommodate disabled people.

The medical way of identifying disability is important, especially at first, when every disabled person tries to help their physical or mental difficulties. But it’s not enough, especially as it does nothing to encourage society to take responsibility towards being more inclusive to disabled people.

At long last, the Social model – at a simple level – poses a better solution (still not perfect but useful) that helps us focus not on what is medically wrong with disabled people but what we can all do as a society to include everyone.


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