Medical Model of Disability

Definition 1

The Medical Model holds that disability results from an individual person’s physical or mental limitations, and is largely unconnected to the social or geographical environments. It is sometimes referred to as the Biological-Inferiority or Functional-Limitation Model.

It is illustrated by the World Health Organization’s (WHO's) definitions, which significantly were devised by doctors:

  • Impairment: any loss or abnormality of psychological or anatomical structure or function.
  • Disability: any restriction or lack of ability (resulting from an impairment) to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
  • Handicap: any disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from impairment or a disability that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal for that individual."

From the WHO Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps, 1980

From this, it is easy to see how people with disabilities might become stigmatized as "lacking" or "abnormal".

The Medical Model places the source of the problem within a single impaired person, and concludes that solutions are found by focusing on the individual. A more sophisticated form of the model allows for economic factors, and recognizes that a poor economic climate will adversely effect a disabled person’s work opportunities. Even so, it still seeks a solution within the individual by helping him or her overcome personal impairment to cope with a faltering labor market.

In simplest terms, the Medical Model assumes that the first step solution is to find a cure or - to use WHO terminology – make disabled people more "normal". This invariably fails because disabled people are not necessarily sick or cannot be improved by remedial treatment. The only remaining solution is to accept the "abnormality" and provide the necessary care to support the "incurable" impaired person. Policy makers are limited to a range of options based upon a program of rehabilitation, vocational training for employment, income maintenance programs and the provision of aids and equipment.

This Functional-Limitation (Medical) model has dominated the formulation of disability policy for years. Although we should not reject out-of-hand its therapeutic aspects which may cure or alleviate the physical and mental condition of many disabled people, it does not offer a realistic perspective from the viewpoint of disabled people themselves. To begin with, most would reject the concept of being "abnormal". Also, the model imposes a paternalistic approach to problem solving which, although well intentioned, concentrates on "care" and ultimately provides justification for institutionalization and segregation. This restricts disabled people’s opportunities to make choices, control their lives and develop their potential.

Finally, the Model fosters existing prejudices in the minds of employers. Because the conditional is "medical", a disabled person will ipso facto be prone to ill health and sick leave, is likely to deteriorate, and will be less productive that work colleagues.

Definition 2

As medical and scientific knowledge expanded profusely, the doctor and the scientist replaced the priest as custodian of societal values and curing processes. Work and production became commodified, and time became linear. Human worth was then to be determined by perceived work value and profitability; and lifestyles and lives became dictated by the mechanistic practices and institutions of the nation state. Universality replaced particularity, reason replaced mystery, and knowledge and state of the mind superseded the lived experience of the body. 'Normality', then, became determined by the ideal of the white, youthful, able, male body; and otherness to this ideal became hierarchically placed as inferiority. Therefore, difference became redefined as deviance commanding control.

Events of this era were to have a major impact on the lives of those with bodily limitations. The lives of such people were reduced to little more than a medical label, and their futures defined by a medical prognosis. People with disability then became a class requiring physical removal from the "able-bodied" norms of what was developing as an urbanized society. As some commentators note, this was the era when cripples disappeared and disability was created.

As certain groups of people came to be viewed as unproductive and incapable, institutions were established as places with a dual purpose: (a) where such people could be placed whilst other family members could meet workers' obligations; and (b) where such people could be skilled to become productive members of society.

But, with the modern era, there was also an increasing emphasis on scientism and social Darwinism; and this resulted in the roles of special institutions shifting from agents of reform to agents of custody for social control and institutional segregation for those now described as sub-normal. Institutions became the instruments for the facilitation of social death. Through a presumed scientific status, care for people with disability became depoloticized, technicalized and professionalized, predicated on notions of tragedy, burden and helpless dependency.

In the post-industrial and post-enlightenment era, disability, in Western society, has been regarded as an individual affliction predominantly cast within scientific and medical discourses. Therefore, "disability" has come to be defined and signified as a power-neutral, objectively observable attribute or characteristic of an "afflicted" person. According to this model, it is the individual, and not society, who has the problem, and different interventions aim to provide the person with the appropriate skills to rehabilitate or deal with it. However, in a culture, supported by modern Western medicine, and which idealizes the idea that the body can be objectified and controlled, those who cannot control their bodies are seen as failures.

In recent years, and with the influence of normalization principles since the 1970's, the locus of an individualized conceptualization has shifted from the state-run (public) institution to community-based facilities and care. However, the medical perspective of disability remains wedded to the economy, whereby personal capacity and ability are often assessed as incapacity and inability so as to determine a person's eligibility for financial assistance and benefits, and access to personal resources. An economic view narrows the complexity of disability to limitations and restrictions, with implications of whether "flawed" people can be educated or productive.

Lack of access to adequate material resources perpetuates a charity discourse which depicts certain people as in need of help, as objects of pity, as personally tragic, and as dependent and eternal children. It is a discourse of benevolence and altruism; and like with the responses of early Christian communities, this discourse serves a complimentary relationship between perceivably helpless people as instruments for good and virtuous works of mercy and compassion by the more "privileged" members of society.

Definition 3

The medical model came about as "modern" medicine began to develop in the 19th Century, along with the enhanced role of the physician in society. Since many disabilities have medical origins, people with disabilities were expected to benefit from coming under the direction of the medical profession. Under this model, the problems that are associated with disability are deemed to reside within the individual. In other words, if the individual is "cured" then these problems will not exist. Society has no underlying responsibility to make a "place" for persons with disabilities, since they live in an outsider role waiting to be cured.

The individual with a disability is in the sick role under the medical model. When people are sick, they are excused from the normal obligations of society: going to school, getting a job, taking on family responsibilities, etc. They are also expected to come under the authority of the medical profession in order to get better. Thus, until recently, most disability policy issues have been regarded as health issues, and physicians have been regarded as the primary authorities in this policy area.

One can see the influence of the medical model in disability public policy today, most notably in the Social Security system, in which disability is defined as the inability to work. This is consistent with the role of the person with a disability as sick. It is also the source of enormous problems for persons with disabilities who want to work but who would risk losing all related public benefits, such as health care coverage or access to Personal Assistance Services (for in-home chores and personal functioning), since a person loses one's disability status by going to work.