Wait, disability model what?

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In the past few years I’ve encountered some discussions of disability models that feel weird. It usually takes some form kind of like this:

Person 1: In the medical model, a disability is defined by the impairments and limitations a disabled person has. In the social model, society disables people, not their impairments.

Sounds good to me so far. But then….

Person 2: So wait, you’re saying disability doesn’t exist? That society makes up disabilities? Society has the disability? What about the pain my disability causes me? What about that person over there who uses a wheelchair? You’re saying they don’t have a disability?

And then ensues some form of rejection of the social model.

Here’s my take: the social model isn’t saying that society makes you have a disability you didn’t have before. It’s saying that society and people in it choose to believe some ways of existing are “normal” and others are not. (The not normal team is the disability team.) But we don’t stop there. The next step is that our society has built itself up on accommodating primarily the ones we decide are “normal”: people who easily and readily climb stairs, people who hear and see simultaneously when watching a movie, people who communicate easily through speaking, writing, reading, and listening, as examples.

To say society is disabling means this:  you have some type of impairment or challenge in some area, and you find society isn’t built to accommodate you as well as people without that impairment or challenge.  A wheelchair user may have no trouble getting from point A to point B if the terrain is accessible. Add in gravel paths and stairs, and voila: society disabled the person. A person with a brain injury may have no trouble in a school lecture if there are written notes to follow along with. Deny the person notes because it’s not your teaching style to let students see your writing, and voila: society disabled the person. Society isn’t a pathology, and society doesn’t have a pathology. But we do build a society that denies some people access. That’s the social model.

Wait, there’s more! The social model also talks about stigma and oppression. Barriers are not just stairs and lack of notes. Oppressive attitudes, abusing people because of a disability (real or just because you think it’s there), financially penalizing people who receive SSI who get married, allocating more money to nursing homes than to community-based care providers for people with disabilities of all ages, calling people you disagree with “crazy”:  these are disabling. And they have nothing whatsoever to do with your diagnosis or your test scores or what’s hard or easy for you. The stigma comes from outside you and how your body and mind work. Many people internalize the stigma and feel crappy about themselves, to say the least.

I’ve enjoyed newer theories like the complex embodiment model. It’s a mouthful. But it’s a balancing point where you can say “Society disables me, and I struggle with or notice my impairment at the same time.” I wish more than anything in my current life that my visual processing system would get its crap together and stop making it so painful and difficult for me to deal with seeing things move near me. At the same time, I do feel confident that closing my eyes while I talk to someone, looking away, or asking people to hold their gestures away from their face while we talk are OK to do. They’re accommodations. I feel no shame when I’ve told people to be careful with using strobes and blinking lights in their videos. Because strobes and blinking lights often make me have to look away and miss your movie. They give some people seizures. That makes them inaccessible, which should not be turned around and used to blame the person with a seizure disorder for having a personal problem.

No matter what theory you like best or dislike least, I would ask this:  when you come across a new one, don’t think you have to throw out all the others if you want to believe the new one. There’s room for multiple perspectives at once, and each disabled person has the right to view life through whichever ones they want in whatever situation. Believing in one doesn’t mean you have to fight with people who believe another one or get defensive. And there’s people who feel like none of these theories describe them or their experiences well.

To hear a lovely and interesting conversation about this question of what the social model is when we talk about stuttering, listen to Peter Reitzes and Christopher Constantino (both speech therapists who stutter) in the first half hour of StutterTalk Episode 517.