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CPACC Notes: Theoretical Models of Disability

I'm studying for the CPACC certification. These are some of the notes I've taken recently.


From the CPACC Body of Knowledge (PDF), these notes define the different theoretical models of disability, including the strengths and weaknesses of their underlying assumptions. None of these models are fully correct or incorrect, and it is useful to use more than one of them to understand disability for different situations.

Medical Model

In general, the medical model treats disability as problems caused by disease, injuries, or health conditions that require medical care or treatment. As such, it aims to “cure” disabilities and is mostly concerned with health care policy.

This is useful for cases where medical intervention can help, such as setting a broken bone or treating a disease that has a cure. However, treating people as problems to be solved is inherently stigmatizing and ignores the reality of issues that people with disabilities face, such as inaccessible environments and discrimination.

Social Model

The social model treats disability as a social problem, rather than an individual one. It’s not that the person is disabled, it’s that the environment was designed for the majority. The environment could be changed to reduce or remove barriers to access, but it requires society to come together and make those changes.

This is helpful for recognizing that barriers to access are not inevitable and that it isn’t people’s bodies that are the problem. However, this can make it seem like disabilities are 100% socially constructed and not related to physical characteristics at all, and there are unfortunately political factions that are very much not persuaded by arguments for positive social change and inclusiveness.

Biopsychosocial Model

This basically combines both the medical and social models, acknowledging the biological, individual, and social aspects of disability.

Economic Model

The economic model focuses on the ability to productively participate in work. Some key areas of concern are lost earnings and the cost of assistance for individuals as well as profit margins for employees and welfare payments from the state.

This recognizes the difficulty for people with disabilities to find and perform work, and it focuses on economic support and accommodations to help people. Again, there are political factions that despise welfare, and the legal classification of people who need assistance is stigmatizing. People whose disabilities don’t meet certain thresholds can also fall through the cracks, making it harder for them get much needed support.

Functional Solutions Model

This is the technocratic model. Rather than curing the person or changing their environment, we’ll create tools to help them accomplish tasks, and then we’ll make a bunch of money!

It’s results oriented, so there’s that, but this often leads to products that are impressive but useless. A wheelchair that can climb stairs is less useful than a ramp or an elevator.

Social Identity or Cultural Affiliation Model

This model acknowledges how people are drawn together by their shared characteristics, such as the deaf community and the use of sign language. Having similar life experiences and interests creates a sense of belonging.

This model accepts a person’s disability as a point of pride rather than a problem to be solved. However, the sense of belonging isn’t universal–you can still be excluded from a group even if you have some things in common.

Charity Model

The charity model sees people with disabilities as unfortunate and in need of outside assistance, and aren’t we just so benevolent to give it to them.

It’s a good thing to spend your time and resources to provide assistance when it is actually needed, but this is a pretty condescending way to treat people who probably don’t want your pity. This also has the pitfall of favoring short-term, specific causes over long-term comprehensive solutions.