Conceptualizing Disability: Three Models of Disability

Conceptualizing Disability: Three Models of Disability

How people think about disability affects how they feel about disability. There are three main models of disability—moral, medical, and social. Each model addresses the causes, appropriate remedies, and deeper meanings of disability. Each model has its merits but also its disadvantages.

Moral Model

In the moral model the disability is seen as having meaning about the person’s or the family’s character character, deeds, thoughts, and karma. On the negative side the disability can carry stigma, shame and blame if the disability is seen as a mark of wrong-doing or evil. On the positive side the disabled person may be seen as a reflection of God’s will.  The person and the family may believe they have been chosen due to God’s faith in them. The fact of disability may be seen as a positive reminder of having survived (e.g., a polio epidemic, or stepping on a land mine). The moral model is very prevalent worldwide, and is the model promoted by most religions. The language used in the moral model may be very emotional (e.g., afflicted, suffers from).

Many stereotypes in movies reinforce the negative sides of the moral model. These movies depicting disabled characters as pitiable and pathetic, sinister, evil, criminal, better off dead, maladjusted and own-worst-enemy, burden on the family and society, unable to live a successful life. In contrast some movies portray a ‘supercrip’—a derogatory term meaning a disabled person who goes beyond usual human levels, such as a wheelchair user who climbs El Capitan in Yosemite.


Medical Model

In the medical model disability is an impairment in a body system or function that is is inherently pathological. Thus the goal is to return the system or function to as close to normal as possible. The people seen as experts are professionals with specialized training, and disabled persons are expected to follow their advice. The language of the medical model is clinical and medical (e.g., left hemiplegia; partial lesion at the T4 level). Psychology and education are mostly medical model wherein disability is not just different but abnormal, and the needs of disabled persons are “special.”

The medical model of disability often is depicted in movies through a plot in which a disabled person is depressed and hopeless but through friendship with an able-bodied person the disabled person learns to embrace life. A reverse twist on this is the idea that disabled people show able-bodied characters how to be better people.


Social Model

In the social model disability is part of diversity, much like race/ethnicity, gender, etc.. The cause of disability is a mismatch between the disabled person and the environment (both physical and social). It is this environment that creates the handicaps and barriers, not the impairment itself. Like other disadvantaged groups, the main problems are negative stereotypes, discrimination and oppression, which are the main barriers to full inclusion. The main goals of intervention are changes to society, rather than to disabled people themselves. Commonalities in psychosocial experiences across different disabilities unify them politically, despite profound differences in types of disabilities. Movies depicting disability from a social model are more apt to have multiple disabled characters who form bonds, learn, and grow, without dependence on an able-bodied character. Other films show disabled characters more realistically: in the context of loving families who are not ‘burdened’ by the disability; in a society that discriminates; as activist trying to change laws.


What is Your Model?

Students have a tendency to see one model as superior to the others, but remember that each model has its pros and cons. The moral model can bring shame, but also renewed faith. The medical model has spurred tremendous advances in rehabilitation but is paternalistic. The social model fosters community, but systemic ableism can be overwhelming.  Probably most people have beliefs in more than one model. But it is hard to know, since currently there is not a well-established measure of the models. More data are needed from disabled persons who reap the benefits of their particular model of disability.



Find a movie with one or more disabled characters, then answer a few questions: (a) Which model(s) did the disabled character hold? (b) What was the director’s perspective on disability? (c) What was the main message about disability in the movie?