The Social Model of Disability: A Personal ‘Turning Point’

The Social Model of Disability: A Personal ‘Turning Point’

In a recent media interview I was asked, ‘describe any important turning points in your life’. I replied that a key turning point for me was definitely learning about the social model of disability.


The social model of disability is based on the theory that disabled people are people disabled by the society in which they live. It says, disability is the effect upon the lives of people with impairments through oppression, lack of equality of opportunity, discrimination and living in an inaccessible environment.


It defines disability as being the experience of barriers. Since learning of this definition ten years ago I am yet to come across a definition I feel trumps it. The social model says there are three types of barriers that exist that prevent disabled people from playing an active part in society. The barriers are; environmental, organisational and attitudinal.


Ten years ago I learnt I was going to lose my central vision and within a few months I went from being fully sighted to partially sighted. I never felt that it needed to be the end for me; in fact I consciously vowed upon diagnosis that it wouldn’t be. However, when I began adapting to my new challenges I found many things unnecessarily difficult or impossible.


From the onset, I felt that some everyday tasks were more difficult. Yes, they were more difficult due to my sight loss, but I felt that at times it wasn’t primarily my sight loss that was the difficulty. I felt that sometimes a contributing factor was bad design, discriminatory practices and poor service.


Now I know that what I then thought of as bad design were ‘environmental barriers’, what I thought of as discriminatory practices were ‘organisational barriers’ and poor service were ‘attitudinal barriers’. I want to qualify that attitudinal barriers are not necessarily about people having a bad attitude towards disabled people. Attitudinal barriers can occur when a person does not feel confident or comfortable communicating with a disabled person. For example, a person talks a little slower or in a sympathetic tone….or worse still talks to the person you are with about what you want or need. The fear of patronising or saying or doing the wrong thing can be well meaning, but it creates an attitudinal barrier.


I found learning about the social model of disability liberating. Knowing that it was not ME on every occasion that was the problem, and that the barriers were sometimes created by something or someone outside me felt like a real ‘light bulb moment’.


I now include the social model of disability in my disability training and visual awareness training as I believe concentrating on reducing and removing barriers is where personal and organisational emphasis should be.


I cited it as a turning point for me as it was learning of this way of thinking about disability that empowered me to go on being Steph and to exceed any expectations others had of me, or indeed I had of myself at the time. Ten years on, and I feel I have maintained my identity, recognised that my disability is a part of me and that it does not define me and have possibly achieved more since my sight loss than I might otherwise have done with full sight.



Find out more about Steph at

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