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Disability Paradigms and Philosophies

In order to conceptualize and compare different ways of thinking and talking about disability, certain analytical frameworks or mindsets have been established. Disability conceptualization takes place within at least two different paradigms.

During the last 30 years, the conceptualization of disability has been in transition.  On opposite ends of the scale you will find the medical or individual oriented model and the social or human rights model (with the latter being the preferred version within the disability community).  From being handicapped in the meaning less able, a person with a disability is now viewed as being prevented by society in being as able as a non-disabled person.  Disabled has gone from being a condition to being an experience.

Social Model or Human Rights Model

This model focuses on the role of society in gaining equality for all its citizens including people with disabilities without them being seen a people with ‘special needs’. Within this model, society has a responsibility to address barriers that prevent the participation of persons with disabilities. The focus shifts from fixing individuals to eliminating socially constructed barriers (meaning everything from prejudice to physical access barriers). The social model moves disability into the field of community development. Disabled people perceived as active and equal participants of society, contributing to the development process.

Medical Model

This model defines disability as a health problem, a disease, to be addressed by doctors and rehabilitation specialists who pursue better treatments and cures for disabling conditions. The focus is on changing disabled people so they can perform more efficiently in a society that has been constructed by and according to non-disabled people.  After the polio epidemics, survivors were encouraged to use crutches and braces to enable them to continue to walk, even in instances where a wheelchair would have provided the survivor greater ease of mobility.

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Last updated: 2009-08-20