I wrote this a lonnnnng time ago, and it’s more a rough outline of ideas than an actual post (I was imagining it as an outline for a speech, I think?) but I might as well do something with it.
The first big concept of the social model of disability is that there are actually two factors that go into whether someone is disabled, and to distinguish them we’ll call them “disability” and “impairment”.
We normally think of disabilities as medical conditions. We say, “hearing loss is a disability.” “ADHD is a disability.” etc. but that’s not all there is to it.
“Impairment”, in the social model, means things like medical conditions— the actual physical and mental abilities of your body, what you can and can’t do.
“Disability” is how you measure up to your society’s idea of what normal abilities are, what a normal person can do.
Without this social standard, you can list people’s abilities and impairments, for example you can say “this person has better vision than that person,” but you can’t necessarily define who is disabled and who isn’t. The dividing line that determines exactly how sick/impaired you have to be to be considered disabled, is sociological, not medical.
Now I want to talk a little more about society, or maybe “civilization” would be a better word.
Society exists, civilization exists, to help people do things they can’t do on their own.
If we were all solitary hermits, we’d all spend all our time growing our own food and making our own clothes, and we wouldn’t be able to build things like cars and computers.
So, society exists to help us do things we can’t do alone. But exactly what help does it give us?
Our assumptions about the normal person— assumptions about the normal person’s abilities, which I was talking about before, and also about what a normal person wants to do— those assumptions determine how we construct society. The way society is, whatever it is, can seem like the only possible way, but it usually isn’t. It’s a product of history, and it can and will change over time.
One example of how two significantly different Ways Things Are can be equally viable is highways vs trains. The United States have a big interstate highway system, relatively little public transportation, and most people own cars. In Europe, short-distance public transport and long-distance trains are much more common, and many more people don’t own cars. Both systems require a certain amount of government resources. They have different pros and cons. Owning your own car gives you more flexibility, but is more expensive and takes up more space, for example. Whether that greater independence and flexibility is worth it depends on how much you/your society value independence. But ultimately, both systems work. Most people can get where they’re going reasonably conveniently, in either system.
When you’ve only been exposed to one system, it’s easy for it to become invisible. Of course there are highways. That’s just how you travel. When your society’s system doesn’t work well for you, though— if you can’t drive, or if you don’t own a car, for example, you become very aware of how your society’s system could be different. For most people, in most situations, either a car+a highway or a train is enough “help” from society to get where they need to go, but sometimes the differences between the two become really significant.
So, certain kinds of help are unquestioned and normal, and other kinds of help become unusual and doubtful.
We forget that everyone is getting help from society, so when someone (such as a person with a disability) speaks up and says “Thing A isn’t accessible to me, I need XYZ,” we see them as burdens. They’re asking for extra help. No one else needs help with Thing A, they just do it.
But looked at from another point of view, it’s not really extra help. Sometimes, it’s the same kind of help that everyone else is already getting from society. They just need it to take a different form.
Like someone who doesn’t have a car needs there to be trains as well as highways. Someone who has a car can “just drive” instead of needing the city to build a subway, hire drivers, etc.
But when we see the person who takes the subway as needing extra help, and the person with a car as doing everything themself, we forget that the city also has to build the roads the cars drive on. It’s not “needs help” vs “independent”. It’s one kind of help vs another.
Not only do our ideas about The Way Things Are and what normal people need make us suspicious of “extra” help that isn’t really extra, they also create the circumstances that make some kinds of help actually more difficult to give. Tacking an alternative way of doing things onto a system that was originally designed to work only one way, is inevitably going to be more difficult than designing the system from the ground up to allow for both.
Adding on wheelchair accessibility to a building that already exists tends to be really expensive and complicated. But. Constructing a building from the ground up that has slightly wider doorways, and a ramp instead of a little flight of steps up to the front door? Not significantly more difficult or expensive than the less-accessible building.
Accomodating people with disabilities is often only a problem because it’s an afterthought. If we planned for it from the start, it might sometimes still be more work than not accomodating them at all, but it’d be much easier than tacking it on at the end.
So, sometimes, people with disabilities are at a disadvantage not so much because of their impairments, the actual facts of what they can’t do, but because our society doesn’t accomodate their needs the way it does other people’s. Because they aren’t within society’s definition of normal. Because they aren’t planned for from the start. Because the things they need look like extra help and we don’t notice how much help we get. Sometimes people with disabilities are disabled not by their impairments, but by society. We as a society CHOOSE to do things in a way that doesn’t work for everyone, when we could choose differently.
And so, not always but sometimes, it makes more sense to change society than to cure people’s impairments. And that’s the social model of disability.