What are different models of disability?

Researchers, practitioners, and people with disabilities have expressed many different perspectives, often called models, about what it means to have a disability. An embraced model of disability can influence what people consider to be the causes of the marginalization of people with disabilities in societies; within different historical periods, these beliefs have impacted the creation and implementation of legislation, policies, and practices. Although terminology and definitions vary and can change over time, below are short descriptions of some overarching models of disability.

  • Moral models of disability consider disability as a deficit caused by moral lapse in thoughts, character, or sins of individuals or family members. A moral view of disability can also lead to a person with a disability as exceptional in faith or perseverance because of what they have achieved "in spite of an impairment." This view is reflected in movies when a person with a disability is portrayed as a one-dimensional villain or hero.
  • Medical models of disability consider disability to be a physical, sensory, or mental impairment—a disease, injury, or ailment affecting a person's body or mind—that needs to be addressed by professionals (e.g., in medical fields or within disability service organizations). To address a person's functional limitations, professionals determine appropriate medical treatments, rehabilitation, and accommodations to existing physical environments, practices, and services.
  • Proponents of social models of disability view disability to be one aspect of a person's identity, just like race, ethnicity, and gender. Social models often make a distinction between an "impairment" and the "disability"—the product of interaction between a person with an impairment and a physical or social environment. People with this perspective challenge ableism and promote the expansion of what is considered "normal" while including people of all physical, mental, and sensory abilities. They explore how the design of physical and social environments disable some people and advocate the use of universal design and related practices that consider diverse abilities as products are being designed. Social models of disability also address intersectionality by considering the impact of a disabled individual's identities in addition to disability status. They consider disability as a diversity issue to be addressed with respect to equity, inclusion, legislation, and policies in ways similar to those for groups defined by gender identity, age, race, and ethnicity.