Reframing Disability

Historically, society has viewed disability in a negative light. In this view, the disability is a “problem” that exists within the person and the goal is to “fix” the person. This approach puts the onus on the disabled person to fit into environments that have not been designed to be inclusive, through the use of accommodations or retrofits. This paradigm is often referred to as the medical or individual model of disability. Many examples of how this perspective pervades our society can be seen by looking at how disability is represented in the media.

Another dominant perspective—especially in higher education settings—is the legal view of disability. Unpublished research by the Association on Higher Education and Disability (2008) shows that over 75% of the disability resource professionals surveyed use a legal definition of “disability” to define their work rather than a social one. When disability is viewed through the lens of compliance, the focus is often placed on “what must be done” rather than “what can be done.”

Many disability scholars embrace a newer paradigm referred to as the social model of disability. In this paradigm, disability is viewed as “the systemic mismatch between physical and mental attributes of individuals and the present (but not the potential) ability of social institutions to accommodate these attributes” (Schriner & Scotch, 2001). The Social Model of Disability (Oliver, 1996) and the Socio-political Model of Disability (Gill) reframe disability by taking the focus away from the person’s disability, shifting the focus toward the designer of the environment and the removal of barriers in the environment.

Medical Model Social Model
Disability is a deficiency or abnormality Disability is a difference
Being disabled is negative Being disabled, in itself, is neutral
Disability resides in the individual Disability derives from interaction between individual and society
The remedy for disability-related problems is cure or normalization of the individual The remedy for disability-related problems is a change in the interaction between the individual and society
The agent of remedy is the professional who affects the arrangements between the individual and society The agent of remedy can be the individual, an advocate, or anyone who affects the arrangements between the individual and society
Source:Gill, C. (1994) Two Models of Disability . Chicago Institute of Disability. University of Chicago.

While many people embrace this new view of disability, a closer look at our language and practices reveals that the older paradigm is still quite pervasive. Words and phrases like “victim of”, “special services”, and “functional limitations” are clear evidence that the “separate but equal” medical model approach to disability continues to guide many of the policies and practices in higher education settings.

Many disability resource providers working in higher education settings are recognizing the need to begin an intentional process of reviewing current policies and practices. They are taking an inventory of the language in their publications, on their web sites and in their daily use and working to make the shift on these most basic levels. When shifts are made in the way disability is represented, it becomes more clear that designing equitable, inclusive, usable learning environments is a matter of social justice. The principles of universal design provide the framework for designing more usable environments.

Original content source:  Project PACE