The social model of disability

The social model of disability is a way of thinking about disability, created by disabled people. 

Get our emails in your inbox

Join over 87,000 others, and be part of the movement driving change for disabled people.

On this page, learn all about the social model of disability, where it came from and how we apply it at Sense.

What is the social model of disability?

The social model of disability is the understanding that disability is something that is created by society. 

This is because disabled people face barriers that stop them from taking part in society in the same way as non-disabled people. 

There are physical barriers that disabled people face. These could include things like:

  • A sign that someone with a visual impairment can’t read. 
  • An inaccessible building without wheelchair ramps. 
  • A webpage with flashing animations that could trigger a seizure.

There are also social barriers or attitudinal barriers, like stereotypical beliefs that non-disabled people have about disabled people. Assuming that a disabled person “can’t do” something creates a barrier for that person.

According to the social model of disability, it’s these barriers that make a person disabled. 

Disability isn’t something that exists inside your body or your mind. It’s something that is created by an inaccessible society. 

“Impairment” versus “disability”

It’s important to remember that if you’re following the social model of disability, impairment and disability are not the same thing.

An impairment is a functional difficulty someone experiences in their body or mind. If you have a hearing impairment, for example, you might need sounds to be louder for you to hear them, or you may not be able to hear them at all.

Disability is the experience of not being able to take part in society because of barriers you face with your impairment. For example, if a video doesn’t have subtitles, and you can’t hear it. 

Who created the social model of disability?

Disability activists came up with the social model of disability in response to civil rights movements in the late 20th century. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, lots of disabled people were excluded from society. The disability rights movement began as people started to question their experiences. Several disability rights groups developed the idea of a social approach to disability.

The disabled academic Mike Oliver first coined the term “social model of disability” in 1983.

The medical model of disability

The social model of disability is an alternative to the medical model of disability. 

The medical model suggests that people are disabled because of impairments or conditions that they have. 

This suggests that the problem is with the disabled person. But the social model recognises that from a disabled person’s perspective, the problems they face are the barriers they experience in society. 

Sense’s approach to disability

Sense follows the social model of disability. 

We believe that disabled people face many barriers that prevent them from taking part in life. 

Our focus is on trying to remove those barriers, and supporting disabled people to have independence and make choices about their own lives. 

We know that not everybody follows the social model of disability. However you choose to describe your own disability, we’re here to support you. 

Find out more about Sense and what we stand for.

Get support from Sense

Get in touch with us to find out more about the support we offer for disabled adults and children.