A hindrance to the Social Model?

I’m just preparing a new Disability Equality Course which will shortly be available from Flyinglady Training.  In the course of my research, I’ve been reading a lot about the Social and Medical Models of Disability – I could indeed write a course just on the merits and pitfalls of each!

For those who may not be familiar with the concepts, let me briefly outline the two.  The Medical model of disability is a long standing theory which defines disabled people by
their condition and regards the individual who has a disability as having a “problem” – their condition must be treated and “cured”.  In days gone by (and even today), the medical model has seen disabled people “written off” and commonly put in care homes to be cared for.  Doctors made decisions for disabled people and they had little input into these decisions.

In the 1980s, this approach was to be challenged by disabled people themselves.  Whilst
always acknowledging disability, they placed its originality with society and not with the individual.  It was said that whilst an individual may have an impairment, it was the physical, social and attitudinal barriers of society which made them disabled.  Hence,
the Social Model of Disability was established.  This model has been a strong force for change in the UK and has advocated the introduction of disability and equality laws in recent years.

Whilst reading various articles about Disability Equality Training, it has become apparent that many disabled people and trainers disapprove of simulation exercises such as non-disabled people using wheelchairs or being blindfolded to simulate blindness.  I have been surprised to read that many disabled people find this pointless, offensive and disrespectful.  Many see this kind of activity as advocating the medical model.  I disagree.

Whilst working for a small disability and employment charity in Berkshire, I managed a “Wheelchair Challenge Day”.  Whilst the primary aim of the event was to raise the profile of the charity, it had another much more important aim – to enable the participants to see some of the barriers which society were putting in place and to take the knowledge back to their employers so that their workplaces could be made more accessible.  During a
debrief session, almost all of the participants reported how they had identified physical and policy changes which could be implemented to make their organisation more  accessible and one even compiled a report to present to their Equality and Diversity committee.

Far from making the participants feel sorry for wheelchair users, many commented on the positive experiences – the opening of a door or someone’s willingness to go out of their way to help in whatever way they could. Whilst I fully accept that wheelchair users represent just 5% of all disabled people and therefore the experience was limiting, nonetheless it was a very positive experience which enabled participants to identify some of the barriers for themselves – rather than just been told what they are. It gave them the desire and determination to ensure that the barriers in their own organisations were removed, therefore enabling more impaired people to access their service – exactly what the Social Model advocates.

Although for practical reasons, simulation probably won’t be apart of Flyinglady’s Training, I would argue that it does have its place and very much supports the Social Model of Disability.

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