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Models of Disability: Medical, Social, Religious, Affirmative and More…

The term ‘Disability’ has different connotations depending on the situation or context. The term invokes different feelings in different persons. For some people, disability refers to a disabling condition of an individual. In some other contexts, disability may have a legal meaning. Some may claim disability to be a social construct. A number of conceptual models of disability have been developed over a period of time to fully understand the diverse perspectives of disability.

These conceptual models of disability are not only helpful in defining disability but also for providing a basis upon which government or society can devise strategies to meet the needs of people with disabilities. In this article, we will discuss some of the most dominant models of disability and their basic characteristics.

Religious Model of Disability: Disability as an Act of God

The religious model of disability, also known as the moral model of disability, perhaps is the oldest model of disability. The concept is found in various religious traditions. It was perhaps the earliest attempt of human beings to understand or define disability.

Disability, according to the religious model, is a result of the wrath of God. It is believed that disability is inflicted upon a person by God as a result of a sin committed by the person.

Some religions, like Hinduism, believe in multiple births. And, disability is explained as a result of some bad karma or moral transgression of previous birth. Sometimes the possible cause of disability is considered a sin not committed by the disabled person but by her parents or ancestors.

In religions like Christianity, disability is explained as a result of the collective sin of humans.

The theory of the religious model of disability has been used for ages to preach to the general population about good behaviors and moral practices. The fear of disability has been used as a tool to prevent the general mass from deviating from the prevailing moral standards of the religion and society. But, it also resulted in social exclusion of the person with a disability (and sometimes their families too) from the local communities.

Yet another theory of the religious model of disability explains disability as a ‘test of faith’. It is believed that the person with a disability is chosen specially by God and that the disability is the chance for them to redeem themselves through their patience, strength and faith towards God. Disability is also seen as an opportunity given by God for developing characters like patience, courage and perseverance. This theory projects persons with disabilities as the ‘blessed souls’.

Another theory of the religious model of disability relates disability to mysticism or some kind of metaphysical blessings. According to this perspective, when God gives one impairment, it is balanced by heightened functioning of other senses thus making the person a spiritually blessed one. It is this perspective that works behind the nomenclature like ‘divyangjan’ used in India for referring to the persons with disabilities.

Medical Model of Disability: Disability as a Disease

With the development in the field of medical science, the medical model of disability came into prominence. This model also referred to as the biomedical model, sees disability as a disease or medical problem that resides in the individual. This is sometimes also referred to as a personal-tragedy model of disability.

Disability, in this model, is defined fundamentally as negative. Therefore the focus is on curing the disability. Terms like ‘invalid’, ‘incapacitated’, ‘cripple’, ‘handicapped’, ‘retarded’ etc. find their root in the medical model of disability. The persons with disabilities are seen as patients who need to be treated or rehabilitated with the help of trained professionals.

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The medical model of disability tends to categorize an able-bodied person as comparatively superior to those with a disability. The sole purpose of persons with a disability according to the theory should be on bringing themselves as much at par with the non-disableds as possible. Persons with disability are someone who needs to be ‘fixed’.

Social Model of Disability: Disability as a Social Construct

The social model of disability developed as a reaction to limitations of the medical model of disability, followed by disability activism in the 1960s and 1970s. This model, also known as the minority model of disability, establishes that it is the society (majorities of the society) that disables people with impairment.

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It is argued that disability is a phenomenon constructed by society. A person with a certain impairment is not disabled unless the social construct puts the person in a disadvantaged position. It is the society that puts limitations and excludes people with impairment from the mainstream of social activities.

The social model is termed as the minority model with the argument that the majorities of society label themselves as normal and use that normalcy as a scale to measure each individual. One of the very common examples for this explanation is – spectacles! Corrective eyeglasses are aids just like braces or crutches. However, people with eyeglasses, unlike people with braces and crutches, are not automatically labeled as disabled because the number of people wearing glasses is now a majority.

The social model of disability explains disability as a particular form of ‘social oppression’. The theorists argue that physical impairment is universal in nature but the extent of disability varies from society to society. The societies that are more ableist in nature put more barriers to participation in the lives of people with impairment.

The social model of disability has played a significant role in the development of international policies for the inclusion and integration of persons with disabilities in the mainstream. Some theorists also explain the social model as the Human Rights Model and see disability as a human right issue.

Affirmation Model of Disability: Disability as an Identity

The Affirmation Model of Disability is the model that claims disability as a positive identity. It begins with the acceptance that people with an impairment are different but there is nothing wrong with them that needs to be fixed. Under the affirmation model, disability is seen as an identity and people with disability are considered to be a member of a minority group just like gender, religion or race.

The affirmation model finds its root in the social model but the focus here is on self-acceptance rather than on policies and external environments. Social, Political and emotional experiences of people with impairment connect them with each other and create a recognizable minority group called ‘People with Disabilities’.

Affirmation model (aka Identity Model) has played a significant role in inspiring persons with disabilities to adopt a positive self-image.

In addition to the above-mentioned broad categories of models of disability, there are many other models as propounded by various sociologists. All the models have been developed based on how people conceive disability. Some of the common models of disability you may come across are:

  • Cultural Model of Disability
  • Economic Model of Disability
  • Charity Model of Disability
  • Biomedical Model of Disability
  • Moral Model of Disability
  • Legitimacy Model of Disability
  • Empowerment Model of Disability
  • Diversity Model of Disability
  • Market Model of Disability
  • Expert/Professional Model of Disability
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