The Social Model of Disability

‘I don’t see myself as disabled. I think my environment disables me.’
Samantha Renke

People thrive when they’re in the right environment. A child may struggle at one school but succeed at another with a different teaching model or a friendlier peer group. An adult may find office work tedious but come alive when sent out on fieldwork. If you’re living with a disability, you may be severely limited by one setting but able to do far more in another.

The social model of disability essentially says that people are disabled by barriers in their environment. Whereas the medical model focuses on ‘what’s gone wrong’ in someone’s body, the social model emphasises the limitations caused by a non-inclusive world.

About the social model of disability

The social model of disability was developed by people living with disability. The social model seeks to adapt the world to your needs rather than limit you by how far you can adapt to the world as it is.

It highlights the many barriers that people with disabilities face such as building design and other people’s attitudes towards them.

Building and transport barriers

Steps, escalators, narrow doorways and footpaths all create barriers for a wheelchair user.

Not all buses are wheelchair accessible, meaning you might have to arrive early or late for an event because you have to catch a particular bus.

You might be quite capable of doing a certain job but unable to make yourself a cup of tea at work because the kitchenette can only be used by someone standing up.

You might be keen to go to the office party but not able to get the rooftop bar because there’s no lift in that old pub.

You might have to go through the kitchens and use the service elevator to get to a meeting held in an old building if its main lifts are too narrow for your wheelchair.

These are all examples of an environment causing limitations. You’re quite capable of getting to the event, doing the office job, enjoying the party and making a valuable contribution to the meeting. But the buses and buildings reinforce what you can’t do instead of creating the conditions for you to enjoy independence along with everyone else.

The social model of disability has challenged governments to mandate more accessible building codes. We’ve seen some great progress but there’s still more work to be done.

Attitudinal barriers

People with disabilities report:

  • Being asked intrusive questions like ‘Can you still have sex?’
  • Receiving well-meant but patronising comments like ‘You’re so brave!’
  • Dealing with constant assumptions about what they can and can’t do.

Scope reports that ⅔ of Brits say they feel awkward around people with disabilities, sometimes to the point of deliberate avoidance.

That has significant implications. Would those people hire or befriend someone with a disability? Probably not.

Communication barriers

Some disabilities affect hearing, speaking, reading, writing and understanding.

If you live with one of those disabilities, you might need:

  • Written information made available in large print or braille (or its electronic equivalent)
  • Spoken messages to include captions or Auslan interpretation
  • Sentences translated into Easy English or Plain English so they’re easier to understand.

Getting the right support to help you participate

With the right support in place, you’re equipped to live life on your own terms.

That starts with finding a service provider who shares your positive approach and helps you navigate around barriers rather than be defeated by them.

Focused Health Care is a registered National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) provider, meaning we meet government safety and quality standards for providing services to people with a disability. We’re based in Brisbane and Townsville but we provide services to clients across Queensland.

At Focused Health Care, we know that your disability doesn’t define you. You’re a unique person with your own interests, relationships and aspirations. Our job is to provide the support you need to develop your skills, explore your interests, and live as independently as possible.

If you’d love that kind of service, please contact us today.


All information is general in nature.

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