Why the Models of Disability matter when creating inclusive environments

A mixed group of young people happily walk along a pier with the calm blue sea behind them. One of them, a young black man, is in a wheelchair.

As access consultants at Direct Access, we often get asked this question and when we do, we tend to give a rather dry and professional answer explaining legal requirements and building regulations. Whilst these legal boxes indeed need to be ticked, it is hardly an inspirational, encouraging, or motivating answer. The answer is far more complex at both a personal and professional level from both our point of view at Direct Access and from the perspective of potential clients. In this blog, we will try to answer the question more expansively by exploring a range of topics that try to put a more personal slant on access audits and their necessity.

To gain a better understanding of how disabled people see the built environment we will touch on the models of disability, and then look at the inclusive design. We will then address the inevitable box-ticking and highlight low-cost access improvements by looking at how a little accessibility can go a long way, then round things up with a look at disability employment and personal experience of disability. Hopefully, it should all add up to a rounded and motivating collection that answers the question.

The social model of disability

There have been various models of disability over the years that attempt to explain how society perceives disability and disabled people. This perception informs thinking at every level and influences decisions at the highest level in Congress right down to how people interact with disabled people in our daily lives.

There are three main models of disability: The Charity model, The Medical model, and The Social model. There are many academic papers and articles defining these models but at a basic level can be defined as follows:

Charity Model

Disabled people are tragic victims of circumstance, pitied and in need of charity to live.

Medical Model

Disabled people are a result of their own physical or mental limitations, and need to be cured.

Social Model

Disabled people are disabled by their attitude, society, and the environment around them.

The Charity and Medical models firmly focus on disability as a problem for the disabled person whereas the social model sees disability as a problem caused by society. We are reminded of a mentor of ours who often used to say, “if buildings were designed by wheelchair users’ ceilings would be lower and everyone else would have to crouch”, apply that thinking to how everything in the built environment and beyond is designed for people who are not disabled, and it could be said that disabled people have been metaphorically “crouching” for years.

Most importantly the social model of disability is the only model widely accepted by disabled people. Thanks to tireless campaigning by disabled people over the last 50 years the social model has been adopted and it now informs strategic thinking throughout organizations. So, is the social model of disability adopted by your organization? It should be and more than that it must be understood to remove the barriers that disabled people continue to experience.

A close-up shot of stethoscope placed on medical documents with a clickable ball-point pen next to it.

An access audit will help your organization adopt the social model of disability by identifying and removing access barriers disabled people experience, thus encouraging the adoption of the social model and generating greater awareness and understanding of the barriers that disabled people face daily.

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