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Whose fault is it that disabled young people are often excluded from society?
Who is responsible for ensuring that everyone is included?
What stops people from being a part of society: Their impairments (e.g hearing or mobility impairments) or the barriers that society has put in place (e.g. steps or inaccessible information)?
There are four main lenses to look at disability: The medical model, the social model, the charitable model and the human rights model.
The Medical Model
The medical model of disability says that disabled people are broken. They are disabled by something that is wrong with their body or mind. Under the medical model, disabled people are in need of a cure to make them like everybody else.
The medical model can be useful when treating the symptoms of a disabled person’s impairments. However, it focuses on the impairments and diagnoses of an individual, and often misses what the person needs more broadly as a member of society. It can lead to people losing independence.
Historically, people thought that disabled people were unable to manage their own affairs so they were routinely placed in institutions, which eroded their rights. In the 1970s, disabled people fought against the medical model. They wanted to leave institutions and be a part of society. When this did happen, disabled people found that the world was full of steps and other barriers, which prevented them from participating fully. In response to this, disability activists developed the social model of disability.
The Social Model
The social model is an updated way of considering disability. It says that people with disability aren’t disabled by their impairments, but by the world around them. It focuses on barriers that prevent people with disability from participating in society. That people are disabled by these barriers.
Rather than saying that the problem lies with the individual, the social model argues that the problem is that society is not accessible or inclusive. Under the social model, society needs to be more accessible and inclusive to ensure that disabled people can participate just like everyone else.
The Charitable Model
Above: Talk by disability advocate Stella Young that touches on the impact of the charitable model. Source: Ted Talks (includes a transcript)
The charitable or charity model sees disabled people as in need of help and unable to do things themselves, and that charitable people should step in provide that support on disabled people’s behalf.
This model centres non-disabled people as “doing a good thing” in helping disabled people, and can undermine autonomy and disability pride. Disability pride can mean being proud of who you are and embracing your disabled identity. It can also mean feeling confident and not hiding your disability.
More modern models instead focus on enabling disabled people to be independent and access reasonable accommodations, and making sure disabled people have agency in their lives, and how they are perceived. Modern models recognise the inequities within society and supporting disabled young people whilst working towards removing those inequities.
This is not to say that people and charity organisations can't provide valuable support and services. This model is rooted in older societal responses to disability, when often the only support available was through charitable organisations. Australia has changed a lot since those early times, and there are now much diverse and developed forms of support.
The Human Rights Model
There is a lot of value in the social model of disability, and it acts as a really good reminder of the role we can all play in removing ableist and inaccessible barriers. The human rights model acknowledges the impact of impairment in the lives of disabled people, and says they require more than just removing barriers.
Disability is a natural part of human diversity that should be valued. Society has a responsibility to support the impacts of impairments. Disabled people's rights and choices need to be respected. And that it is everyone’s role to ensure those rights are upheld.
The human rights model, in affirming that disabled people are inherently deserving of rights, also emphasises the pride, community and identity that come from being a disabled person. By understanding that disability is natural and valid, pride in that experience can be fostered.
In some ways it combines the realities of having a disability and being disabled by an inaccessible society. It then uses a human rights framework to bring about positive change for and by disabled people and with those that support them.
These models are ways to try and understand our experiences of the world. They are all imperfect, and each only goes so far in explaining complex ideas. All of them will impact disabled people’s live at some point. The charitable and medical model of disability are rooted in older ideas. They focus on the diagnosis and the idea that disabled people needed to be ‘cured’ or ‘helped’. The social and human rights models of disability are more progressive ways of looking at disability. They are useful tools to advocate for positive change and equality for disabled people. But there is nuance in this, particularly how charity and medicine are part of societal structures and supporting disability.
We strongly encourage you to use the social and human rights models of disability as the basis of your interactions with disabled young people.
Does this way of looking at disability resonate with you?
How have you seen these different models play out in your work?
Look into the disability activism movement to learn more about the interesting and important history of disability rights.
Watch this video made by Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John: