Understanding disability


Understanding Disability

The social versus the medical model

There are different ways of understanding disability. The two main ones are:

  • the social model;
  • medical model.

The social model of disability

The trade union movement uses the social model of disability which is based on what disabled people can do rather than what they cannot do.

The social model looks at the barriers that our society puts in the way of disabled people’s participation, including both attitudes and practical barriers. It aims to remove unnecessary barriers that prevent disabled people from accessing work and services and living independently.

The social model identifies the problems faced by disabled people because of external factors. It distinguishes between impairment and disability.

Impairment is described as a characteristic or long-term trait, which may or may not result from an injury, disease or condition. Disability is the difficulties experienced by people with an impairment by society not taking sufficient measures to take account of their needs.

The medical model of disability

The medical model presents the impairment as the cause of disabled people’s disadvantage and exclusion. An employer who decides that a person cannot work for them because they are autistic, rather than considering how to make the workplace suitable for them, is probably being influenced by this model. Unfortunately, the medical model dominates much political and legal decision-making.

The trade union response

Prospect very much supports the social model in our approach to promoting equality for all our members. In individual representation, collective bargaining, drawing up demands and campaigning for them, the most effective approach for trade unions to follow is to identify the factors in the workplace environment and working conditions that disable the worker. Then the union can identify and fight for the changes that would remove these factors.

 The TUC has produced a guide  Trade Unions and Disabled Members: Why the social model matters.