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Models of Disability

Theories on How Disability Should Be Viewed and Treated

We talk about “models of disability” when we look at how society and especially those with the power to make policy see the root causes of impairment.

Historically, people thought of disability as a moral failing of the individual. Until the 1800’s, the person with disabilities was considered to be deserving of their lot in life – that God was punishing them for their sinful nature by afflicting them with a disability.

In the mid-19th century, as the medical profession rose to prominence alongside an institutional model, first doctors and then the culture at large promoted the “Medical Model” of disability – the idea being that a disability is at its root a sickness or pathology. The focus was on the individual, and on finding a “cure” for the disability, or at least making the person more “normal”.

As disability rights activists and their allies started to agitate for their rights, a new model was born: the “Social Model” of disability. In this understanding, focusing on the individual’s pathology misses the more important impact of the systems and societal structures that limit an individual’s ability to participate in that society. This model argues that we must look past the view of disabled bodies as “defective” and see instead the ways that society creates barriers to full inclusion for all.

Model of “Care and Treatment”

Moral: people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD) were evil and had to be destroyed.
Medical: people with ID/DD were broken and had to be fixed.
Societal: there is nothing wrong with people with ID/DD; the general population just needs information about them and experience with them.

— analysis by a former Pineland resident 

Models such as these provide a framework that our society uses to create solutions for meeting the needs of people with disabilities. If the framework is the Medical Model, solutions may look very different than if using the Social Model.

Some other models that have been used to understand disability in our culture have included:

The Expert or Professional Model – associated with the Medical Model, in this view doctor’s and service providers know best how to “fix” the person with disabilities.

The Charity/Tragedy Model – in which the person with a disability is someone to be pitied and “helped”, out of the goodness of our hearts.

The Economic Model – in this model, a person’s worth is defined both by what they can contribute and by what burden they place on society.

“Normalization” and “Social Role Valorization”

The concept of normalization began in Denmark in the 1950s and was enshrined in law in that country in 1959 as the idea that people with intellectual disabilities should be allowed to live as close to “normal” as possible. 

In the 1970’s, as the movement for disability rights and deinstitutionalization moved into the national spotlight, the psychologist Wolf Wolfensberger brought the ideas of normalization to the United States, focusing on systems of service provision and how they could be changed to allow people with disabilities to live fuller lives in their communities. His work contributed to the movement away from large congregate settings and towards home and community-based services.

Expanding on the ideas of normalization, Wolfensberger created the term “Social Role Valorization” – based on the premise that people are more likely to live fuller lives and get the full benefits of their society if they have valued social roles in that society. Wolfensberger understood that people are more likely to receive respect, acceptance, and belonging in their communities if others saw them as valuable members of that community. 

Advocates and self-advocates use the ideas of normalization and social role valorization to this day to create societal change so that people with developmental disabilities can live full and valued lives in their communities.


Deborah Marks (1997) Models of disability, Disability and Rehabilitation, 19:3, 85-91, DOI: 10.3109/09638289709166831

Smart, Julie F.  The Power of Models of Disability, Journal of Rehabilitation; Alexandria Vol. 75, Iss. 2,  (Apr-Jun 2009): 3-11

Wolfensberger, Wolf.  Social Role Valorization: A Proposed New Term for the Principle of Normalization, Mental Retardation; Washington, etc. Vol. 21, Iss. 6,  (Dec 1, 1983): 234.