Of Keys and Castles: The Social Model of Disability

Here’s the scenario. You are involved in an organization in your hometown to alleviate hunger and homelessness. The organization’s president is a charismatic type, capable of passionate speeches that shake dust from the sealing and keep nearly everyone wide-awake. “If you ain't willing to open your own castle to someone in need, you better not be talking to me about an open mind” she says.
She composes the monthly report, which, like her speeches, feature ornate examples of her drawing and map-making abilities. In fact, most of the essential information in the monthlies are conveyed in this manner. Donation records are described by pictures of soup cans and tents, with numbers scribbled below with a sharpy. Volunteer assignments and current projects at homeless encampments are depicted on a map, which gives most participants a good idea of how close to their home everything is.
Problem is you are blind. You’ve asked for digital copies of reports on a number of occasions, without anything to show. Undaunted, you collected one of the paper copies, and brought it home to scan with your newly updated phone. Because the written information is done by hand, and is not organized into neat rows or columns, your phone’s OCR App can neither decipher the majority of characters, nor arrange them coherently. Worse, all the maps and nice drawings render into clusters of tildes and Curley brackets.

You send out emails to fellow members, and even ask a government employee from Blindness Services to help you. You just want to know where to go on your project assignments. 


You report your predicament to Madam President at the beginning of the next meeting, mentioning your attempts at scanning and unheeded petitions. She. . . is. . . pissed – luckily not at you.
“I want an explanation as to why every single person here has not offered to help our unsighted friend!” she shouts!
There are mumblings from the crowd.
“Isn’t there someone working for Blindness Services that can help him?” asks one.
“My cousin uses this thing where you use the phone camera to read – can he use that?” asks another.
“Aren’t there, like, these charities you can call and ask someone to describe stuff to you?”

The president apologizes to you profusely on behalf of humanity, and tells you how amazing it has been to see you participating in the food pantry projects in spite a mountain of obstacles she can scarcely imagine.
The issues you contend with here are manifold. You might be starting to lose track of them. The question though is: is it about not enough people being charitable when you need it? Is it about a lack of technical or medical solutions? Or does it cut deeper?

Nowadays, there are some proponents of the social model of disability who would ask, why did Madam President just assume everyone would have no problems with her pictures? Did she not expect a blind person would come knocking and get involved? Why not? For that matter, why not a deaf person, a deaf-blind person, or a paraplegic person? Why do we not consider such people to be the sort we normally speak to, either on the street, in the audience, in the office, or anywhere else?

The social model of disability, influenced by “post-modernists” like Michel Foucault, who described modern societies tendency to simultaneously generate homogeneity and “strangeness”, suggests that the unique exclusion and other hardships faced by disabled people are not innately the result of a misfortune in people’s physical bodies. Rather, they are the result of biases sown over time into the fabric – the structure of society(2).

In contrast, thinkers carrying the torch of influential turn-of-the-20th-century philosopher Emile Durkheim, and his theories on deviance and functionalism, explicitly represent what tends to remain implicit in mainstream ideas about disability. Farber (1968) asserted that disabled people are society’s “surplus” and “deviants”, and that externalizing them from the mainstream enables the keeping of order. [3] Similarly, Topliss (1982), who saw discrimination against the disabled as an inevitable consequence of their inability to fully function in the workforce, posits, “there will always be a line, somewhat indefinite but none the less real, between the able-bodied majority and a disabled minority whose interests are given less salience in the activities of society as a whole. Similarly, the values which underpin society must be those that support the interests and activity of the majority, hence the emphasis on vigorous independence and competitive achievement, particularly in the occupational sphere, with the unfortunate spin-off that it encourages a stigmatizing and negative view of the disabilities which handicap individuals in these valued aspects of life.(5)”

Social model proponents suggest that if societies didn’t decide that it is normal and preferable to exceed a certain threshold of sight, hearing, physical strength, intelligence, preferred behavior, etc., we might not be talking about blindness, or any such disability-related terms. Disability itself is thus thought of here as a social condition, similar to the way we often talk of race, ethnicity, and gender.

It sounds bold and radical, though this impression may speak to how more common ways of thinking of disability are ingrained in society. Other models that have not quite gone out of fashion include the medical model, which treats disability as a medical abnormality, often to be avoided or mitigated. Huge sums continue to be invested in finding cures for blindness. A charity model similarly treats disability as a misfortune – one that demands the better angels of our humanity to successfully address. The difference between the social model and the charity one is that proponents of the former do not see disability as innately tragic or a cause for exclusion. What’s more is their solution for the problems associated with disability are to come through paradigm shifts in what we expect people to be like, rather than Tackling problems of divergence as they crop up in headlights, or at your monthly meetings.

This sounds rather theoretical. You could reasonably argue the outcomes would be the same in either model. If we were just more helpful people that could bend over backwards and do what it takes to help folks when they have unexpected needs, you would have the altruistic society everyone desires.
Consider issues of transportation. Cultures centered around personal motor-vehicles have discrimination written all over them. To this day, blind people are not able to safely drive on our streets, and the same can be said for folks with numerous neurological and physical conditions.

 Other disabled people may simply not be able to afford a vehicle due to discrimination in the job market. A charitable model would see the problem, and advocate solutions like greater volunteerism, some buses to help the least fortunate get to critical destinations, grants, or more public services geared towards providing door-to-door rides for those unable to drive. The social model, instead, informs us that the problem is systemic, and thus so should be the solutions. Instead of services targeting the least fortunate, and a reliance on often elusive goodwill, all components of transportation infrastructure, from the location of buildings, the layout of streets, and the means by which everyone gets around should be up for revision. This may mean making cars highly disadvantageous to use, compared to public transit, walking, and wheeling.
Even if the implications of reimagining disability in such an impactful way seem remote, there is an empowering aspect to this manor of analyzing things. It states that there is nothing wrong or particularly unusual with being disabled. It also states that it is logical to expect society, charismatics and all, to be guided by needs of disabled people, because they are normal, reasonable needs. Attitudes that advocate treating disabled people as cases to be solved, cured, rehabilitated, pitied, even put on a pedestal for admiration, it is argued, maintain a culture of control and elitism. The medical and charity model picture an idealized sort of human that should be aspired to, and that should weald the keys to the kingdom, all be it in a benevolent manor. Down with these kingdoms then? Storm the castles that lock us out?

Some of us have heard a similar sounding rhetoric about blindness from organizations like the National Federation of the Blind in the U.S. The Federation, long antagonistic towards sighted-driven government and charitable agencies for the blind, states in its official slogan, “blindness is not what holds you back”. [4] Just saying this can inspire, especially if it is the exact opposite of what you are told every day of your life. Some have suggested that the Federation has not extended this generous view to other disabilities and minority groups that it intersects with, however, and has kept them back in the process.

Some of the most potent criticism of the social model, in fact, comes not from the old Gard in medicine and charity, but from critics of social structures. Some, like Crow (1996), argue that the social model unwittingly promotes a hierarchy, where in physical differences are dismissed in spite of their actual consequences(1). The National Federation of the Blind, for decades on, has been fighting for the removal of allowances for employers to pay exploitative sub-minimum wages to disabled workers. While they have stood in solidarity with other disabled-run organizations in this fight, one of their main arguments has been that all people, regardless of disability, have essentially the same economic potential and capacity to work. Others may argue that the suggestion all disabled people can and should be on the same economic footing as non-disabled individuals, actually adheres to an “economic model” that devalues or ignores many that can’t meet such a narrow, “ableist” standard of worthiness. [2] It might suggest that disabled people that are unable to work should inevitably be stigmatized, as Topliss suggested. Many in the vanguard of disability theory today attempt to distinguish disability (restrictions put on people with physical impairments by social structures) and impairment itself (the lack or limitation in certain physical or mental functions). [2] It is then reasonable to ask: what issues arise purely from impairment, as opposed to the social structures effecting disability? Many that deal with chronic illness or pain would much prefer medical treatment over platitudes about social structures. Others may simply notice that their unique needs are not being met in situations that normalize particular common impairments, especially when frailty is downplayed. Are there specific conditions that, while perhaps arising due to no fault of an individual, feature characteristics that have purely negative value in all decent societies? A theoretical dictator personality disorder?

Regardless of such criticism, the social model of disability does offer us a wider angle of what it means to be disabled. It offers a line of defense amidst the challenges thrown at us in a society that ignores and demeans us. 

Works cited:
• Crow, L. (1996), Including All of Our Lives: Renewing the Social Model of Disability. Encounters with Strangers: Feminism and Disability.
• Dawn, Ranjita (2021), The Social Model of Disability in India. ISBN: 978-1-003-14943-9 (EBK). Saban: Deanta Global Publishing Services
3. Farber, B. (1968) Mental retardation: Its social context and social consequences. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
• National Federation of the Blind (2023), Homepage; https://nfb.org/
5. Topliss, E (1982) Social Responses to Handicap (Social Responses in Modern Britain). Harlow: Longman.
As cited in Abberley, Paul (1997), The Limits of Classical Social Theory in the Analysis and Transformation of Disablement; Chapter 2 (in ‘Disability Studies: Past Present and Future’ edited by Len Barton and Mike Oliver (1997); Leeds: The Disability Press, pp. 25-44)