2 What does it mean to be disabled?
2.2 Models of disability
There are two central models of disability: the social model and the medical model. Michael Oliver, a researcher, writer and campaigner, provides the following definitions.
Firstly, the medical (or individual) model…
… locates the ‘problem’ of disability within the individual and … sees the causes of this problem as stemming from the functional limitations or psychological losses which are assumed to arise from disability.
In the medical model the barriers exist because of people's impairments. In contrast, the social model describes disability as …
… all the things that impose restrictions on disabled people; ranging from individual prejudice to institutional discrimination, from inaccessible public buildings to unusable transport systems, from segregated education to excluding work arrangements, and so on.
In other words, it is society that disables people with impairments. The social model was developed in the context of disabled people campaigning for change in societal attitudes. The model focuses on the need for society to change policy and attitudes, and to eliminate economic discrimination against disabled people.
What is the relevance of each of the two models to interaction designers?
The social model is more relevant because interaction design should mitigate against the kind of restrictions that disabled people may meet when interacting with devices. However, interaction design also sees users as individuals, and strives to understand users’ requirements. In this sense, interaction designers should also understand the difficulties posed by certain disabilities, not to see them as a ‘problem’ but as a means to understand how best to support individuals.