[original post:Contra The Social Model Of Disability]

Table Of Contents

1: Comments Defending The Social Model**
2:** Comments About The Social Model Being Used (Or Not) In Real Life**
3:** Other Comments**
4:** Summary / What I Learned

1: Comments Defending The Social Model

I argued against the Social Model, and most commenters agreed with me. Some agreed with me too much, arguing that nobody really means it, or that it’s not worth my time to challenge it. In their honor, I want to focus this Highlights post on the comments trying to defend the model, either fully or in part.


I’ll partially defend the social model of disability.

However, I do want to say that the version of the model I am defending comes from Elizabeth Barnes’ book, “The Minority Body.” I think her book, which is fairly short and good, does a better job of exploring the nuance of the social model of disability, and presents a more difficult model to rebut than the definitions you have used. She posits, for example, that disability (at least physical disability, she suggests that mental disabilities are the same, but declares them beyond the scope of her book) are “mere difference.”

I tend to agree, physical disabilities are “mere difference.” There is nothing inherently better about being sighted versus being blind. There is nothing inherently better about walking versus using a wheelchair. It is only once we impose certain values that these differences become salient.

One could imagine, for example, a world where deaf people are the norm. 99% of people are deaf, whereas 1% of people are sighted. The world is designed for deaf people, who speak exclusively using sign language, and little thought has been put into how loud or high-pitched noises may affect hearing individuals. Now it is those who can hear, not those who are deaf, who are disabled. Consider the same sort of world-changing thought experiment but for blind people.

It is slightly tendentious, but I would argue that every physical disability can be defended as “mere difference” in this manner. A world designed for people with wheelchairs is not ideal for those who walk. A world designed for those with gigantism or dwarfism would be poorly designed for those of more normal height. Even a world designed for people experiencing some sort of very common pain-disorder (please do better than to note that I called this a “dis”-order, it’s hard enough talking about this subject in an analytic way without people breaking words into their component parts and forcing you to pick new and confusing ones just to avoid literal implications) would have those without the disorder disabled insofar as their unusual medical priorities are delegitimized in importance.

This is still, technically, the social model of disability. However, what annoys me about the definitions you used is that they suggest, incorrectly when compared to philosophers of disability, that accomodations are easy to provide or that society is malicious is not providing accomodations.

Where I differ with Barnes is that I do not particularly care that society has values which occasionally require it to discriminate against certain members, so long as that discrimination is the logical result of society pursuing a legitimately agreed-upon social good, and not the result of cruelty or some other bigotry.

It is fine that we prioritize efficiency in fulfilling social goods. It would be a terrible, Harrison Bergeron-esque world if we attempted to ensure that no social good could be pursued until everybody was equally happy with their individual treatments and help. I actually like Barnes’ book because she spends much of her time arguing that disabled people are not unhappy. They are in fact, generally quite OK (Barnes herself has some sort of painful disorder which I cannot recall from memory), and tend to take much of their identity from their disability. They are, in other words, not miserable wretches whom society must drop everything in order to help, but merely one of many interests groups in a democratic, pluralistic society–albeit one with a more salient cause than many others.

I’d like to end with an example of left-handed people.

Left-handed people were long stigmatized, in part due to ancient beliefs that the left-hand side was associated with demons (see the kabbalistic text “Emanations of the Left-Hand Side” by Rabbi Isaac Ha-Kohen for a medieval Jewish example). This stigma persisted well into the early 20th century, and left-handed schoolchildren were bullied terribly by teachers and students alike.

Then, people realized that this treatment of left-handed people was superstitious, cruel, and stupid. For the most part, they stopped doing it. A disability was “cured” not by making left-handed people right-handed, but by societal accomodations.

So far this seems like a pure victory for the social model, but not so fast.

The British Military uses the SA80 rifle for infantryman. The SA80 is a purely right-handed weapon. It ejects the spent cartridge out of the left side, and so cannot be safely used in a left-handed manner. Left-handed soldiers must use the SA80 in a right-handed manner. This is still an interaction with society, because it is society, and specifically the military, the military-industrial complex, and British Parliament, which has decided to build exclusively right-handed SA80 rifles.

However, the reasons for doing so are not cruelty to left-handed people. It is a matter of cost and consistency between soldiers. These are equally legitimate values to pursue in addition to equality. No person, involved in the decisionmaking process here needed to have a hatred of left-handed people. They simply decided that it was more important to accomodate the right-handed majority than the left-handed minority. If left-handed people were the majority and right-handed people the minority, it stands to reason that the opposite decision would have been made.

Left-handed people, in other words, are discriminated against merely because they have “minority bodies.” Unlike Barnes (who does not use this precise example), I think this is often acceptable, but this is still the social model of disability.

You can see my response and a short debate here.


I think the Biopsychosocial Model might be missing the factor of … minority-ness.

Imagine a world where approximately everyone is deaf. There’s no point in spending considerable expense and effort engineering machines to be quiet, no point in adding things like mufflers on cars; they can’t be annoyed, hurt, or distracted by noise. (The din is probably somewhat bad for the local wildlife, but no more so than other stuff we inflict on wildlife.)

Now, imagine being a hearing person born in this world. If you go out into the countryside, or construct a special sound-proof room, you have a mild advantage - you can sometimes sense things happening behind you. Speaking, non-sign-based language doesn’t exist. But being around appliances, industrial machinery, and vehicles is somewhere between annoyingly distracting and intensely painful for you, often leaving you with debilitating headaches; it’s somewhat comparable to an allergy or an autistic sensory disorder.

Prosthetic ear-plugs or ear-muffs can help somewhat, simple surgery can resolve the condition entirely, and it tends to fade somewhat with time.

Is this society’s “fault”? Society didn’t make you unable to bear loud noises. Society could have put in the effort to soundproof or redesign every single machine, but understandably that would cost billions or trillions. This isn’t like the persecution of gay people, it’s not a result of stigma.

And yet… there is obviously a sense in which hearing is only “a disability” in this hypothetical as a result of “the way society is”, of being a minority.

(Some disabilities would outright make a society where they’re possessed by the supermajority impossible - quadropalegia, extreme schizophrenia, perhaps. Others might not offer much disadvantage to those without them if they were the minority, e.g. I think people who can walk would do fine in a society of wheelchair users, and “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” is probably correct.)

ne.hh (blog) writes:

overall point taken, but i do think the more salient/useful feature of the social model is that its theory of social causation intuitively produces a sense of social responsibility. does it matter necessarily if society “caused” the disability if the larger motivation is to promote social action? whether the approach is infrastructural or medical in nature, either way the responsibility to accommodate falls on society’s shoulders at large. i think the social model’s recognition of this necessity still advantages it over the biopsychosocial model […]

essentially i’m pointing to a functional disconnect between the two models. if the question is “what causes disability?” then i would agree that turning to the biopsychosocial model makes sense there. but if the question is “what should we do about it?” then i think the social model proves the more useful there. this is assuming we agree generally that social action of some sort is what’s called for in order to solve the problem of, say, providing blind people with options for transportation […]

I asked what differentiates this perspective from a more general end-justifies-the-means defense of false propaganda; you can see ne.hh’s response (and many other people debating the point) in the thread below here and another subthread here.


Like a lot of my woke beliefs that irritate rationalists (standpoint epistemology, systemic explanations for racial disparities, etc), I think an important and easily-missed feature of this discourse is that whether we admit it or not, most adherents of the social model treat it “seriously but not literally”—specifically, as a moderately strong prior rather than a brittle, irrational foregone conclusion.

I’m a biomedical researcher, obviously I’m aware that (some) diseases and disabilities are objectively worth trying to cure. But I also try to stay on guard for the possibility that “disabled people are, sadly, less able to do things than abled people” is a thought-terminating cliché. Most people are abled along any given dimension, and even without raising the cynical possibility that abled people don’t like being inconvenienced for the sake of including a minority, it’s clear that it’s easy for abled people to forget about or fail to imagine the experience of disabled people (top-of-mind example, saw a semi-viral tweet the other day about whether it was weird to see a couple sitting on the same side of a booth in a restaurant, and hundreds of people were discussing without anyone mentioning the possibility that one of the people could only hear out of one ear and not very well).

So any time I (a mostly abled person) think about or am told by another abled person about an accessibility issue framed as an objective biological fact, like “you don’t see wet lab workers in wheelchairs because they wouldn’t be able to reach the benchtops,” I always try to check myself and see if I can think of a reasonably cost-effective social solution to this obstacle. Obviously it will sometimes be the case that there is no such solution, but I believe that in expectation, making the mental effort to think about it for a moment is both epistemically worthwhile and increases the likelihood that my thought will lead to some positive-EV practical conclusion.

When I wrote that I basically agreed with all of this but didn’t like hanging it on a theory which wasn’t literally true, organoid said that “Personally, while I’m not a full-on continental philosophy fan I do think there’s a time and place for saying things that are obviously not literally true on reflection, as provocative correctives to a complacent status quo.” I asked whether this was really what continental philosophers were doing, which turned into this interesting subthread.

Allan Smithwrites:

So, I agree with you for the most part, but I think you missed a crucial part of the history of the Social Model that really should be mentioned (to cover off, I prefer pluralist/intersectional models mysel and would prefer that be the default hands down).

So to cover my biases. I have Autistic Catatonia and spontaneously lose cognitive and motor functions in response to stress. I also cannot feel stress. These things combined means that there is very little society can do to accomodate my disability when I am disabled. When I am not disabled, I am fully functional, have 4 degrees, and occasionally engage in game design and disability advocacy. About the only thing I can do to accomodate for my disability is not travel alone so that someone is always around to deal with things if I am crossing the road and lose the ability to walk or identify what a car is. If that can’t be managed, basically I am not allowed to leave my house ever.

According to the Social Model of disability, I am not disabled. Also, blaming society achieves absolutely nothing for me.

BUT, I want to draw focus on that. Blaming society. That fundamentally is what the Social Model is all about and I feel it’s important to stress that this is the entire point of the Social Model. It’s a no-compromise political standpoint intended to force people to change or rethink policies. The social model plays the blame game because that’s one of the most effective political strategies known to mankind. At most fundamental levels the social model is about changing how we look at disability, and it almost doesn’t matter if it’s right, what matters is if it forces us to address the point. Furthermore large parts of the pluralist and interactional and bio/eco/social/medical movements have evolved OUT of the Social Model, and many of your own criticisms of the Social model came out of people who were trying to improve the model.

It’s worth noting that the medical model isn’t a total fiction either. Aside from the fact that the medical model is more about mentality and approach to disability rather than anything else, fundamentally the medical model is an extreme that tends to be based on the way surgeons are taught - focus on the body/operation/disorder and leave the rest to the nurses, GPs and psychs. The medical model and the social model are both extremes like being political left or politically right. No one really 100% meets the definition of “left” or “right”, but people do tend to look for dichotomies and lean more in one direction than the other (even if reality is infinitely more complex). Now again, I think the intersectional model is better, and the mediating tools model, and the pluralist model, and a bunch of others, but not only are these models often seen as more complex, they’re often politically weak standpoints because they don’t create a strong us vs them mentality, they don’t cast blame, they don’t provide a banner to unite around, etc., etc., but these things are kinda the entire point of a no-compromise position. By not compromising you (theoretically) force the other party to change, readjust, come up with a new position and eventually you get somewhere agreeable - or at least you create an opening for a third party to step in and take over. That is what the Social Model is about. It’s not (read as shouldn’t) be the dominant standpoint, but it should be about forcing people to bring these questions to the table by starting from and maintaining a position of strength. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who don’t blindly follow the Social Model to the point of stupidity, but I’ve met people who adhere to the medical model as a standpoint too.

Also you seem to have totally missed the charity model of disability which the Social Model is generally intended to confront also. Although I do say generally because usually it’s listed as medical model first, charity model second, and frankly I’d be dead if it wasn’t for the charity model even if the way it’s carried out is very insulting a lot of the time (add onto this the conditional charity model and… there’s a lot of depth to these arguments).

Anyway. This is something I’ve studied a decent amount because of the impact the Social Model, Charity Model and Medical Model has had on the Australian model, and in particular studying the history of the IDF (the former ICIDH), and a few other things. But I’m not an expert. And I’m also speaking from the perspective of a disabled Australian and not Ireland (our history with the social model mostly goes back to the late 80s at best).

To recap, the point of the Social Model is to be a political advocacy stance first and foremost. Do I agree with it? No. But it has had positive effects that may not have been achieved otherwise including the invention of pluralist/interactionist models? Yes. It has also had many negative effects, including the fact that you can’t base an economic system around the social model but some people think you can for some reason (holy crap, that’s a rant). But I think it’s worth addressing that the point of the social model is to be a no-compromise political stance first, and like all no-compromise political stances it has flaws. But those flaws are generally considered less important by the people who are advocating it for whatever reason, if only because it invites people to fix those flaws.

Otherwise I largely agree with you, I just really feel you missed the point about the Social Model’s political history and how important it has been to creating and generally improving the models we have now.

I appreciate this explanation, but I hope I’m not being too hostile by summarizing it as “Yes, it may be false, but people are promoting the false thing for propaganda purposes.” How is that an extenuating factor?

Sarah Constantin (blog) writes:

I found Unspeakable Conversations, by Harriet McBryde Johnson, useful for getting insight on the Social Model from the perspective of one of its advocates. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/16/magazine/unspeakable-conversations.html

Her take on her own disability, a congenital neuromuscular disorder that left her unable to walk, bathe, or dress without assistance, was that she could not say it had made her life “worse”, given that she had never lived without it. Her condition didn’t distress her; it was just the way life was.

It would be absurd to claim that disabilities don’t inherently limit capacities; what Social Model advocates claim is that it is a consequence of social context which limitations are generally considered problems. Humans can’t fly (without machines), but we don’t consider our flightlessness a problem, just a fact of life.

If all humans were deaf, we would likely consider the inability to hear a simple “part of the human condition”, not a problem. (Maybe we’d invent artificial ears; maybe some transhumanists would dream of a future where we would be genetically enhanced to have sound-perceiving senses; but society probably wouldn’t prioritize this very urgently.) Some all-deaf communities are already living in this context, where people can go through life without encountering situations where the fact that they can’t hear presents itself as particularly frustrating or unfortunate.

Your example of a blind person on a desert island seems to misunderstand the social model. The blind person is just as blind on the island as she would be in society; but she might not mind that she’s blind. Yes, counterfactually, if she could see, she could do more things; but if she has never heard that humans are “supposed” to have sight (or has been alone so long that she no longer compares herself to other humans), she might consider it a silly counterfactual, no more worth thinking about than the counterfactual world where she could fly like a bird.

An impairment is only distressing in itself if it violates expectations – if a person wanted to be able to do something, but cannot – or, perhaps, if it is itself a disorder of the distress machinery, as with depression or chronic pain.

An impairment is also only a cause of socially recognized dysfunction if society considers it sub-normal. If all people used wheelchairs, there would be no valued professions (like admirals) from which wheelchair users were excluded. We’d either have wheelchair-using admirals or no admirals, tautologically.


Deep down I can see that the Social Model of Disability isn’t really relevant to the world of natural human relationships, where common sense applies. Rather, it’s the sort of thing that results from the world of modern bureaucracy, where individuals are subject to the agents of vast interconnected institutions, whose actions are the result of policies set by obscure processes involving negotiations between countless levels and arms of authority, and in which any individual actor is incentivized more than anything to cover their own ass.

Someone once said that bureaucracy is basically unaligned AI; well, things like the the Social Model of Disability are basically prompt hacking.

Last summer I had a serious back problem. Fortunately, the problem could be treated effectively by a combination of drugs and physical therapy. I got the treatment, AND, while I was recovering, I got people to help me, and otherwise arranged things in my life, so I could avoid lifting heavy objects. I and everyone around me could see that the medical treatment and the accommodations were both patently good ideas; nobody had to appeal to any Models or Theories to justify either. But also, in my case, the treatment and the accommodations were both relatively minor and easy to obtain. My life, my livelyhood, and my basic rights were never under threat, and I never had to fight to bend the will of any institutions to get what I needed.

So again, I don’t think things like the Social Model of Disability are really for human beings discussing or figuring out their lives. They’re for nudging the system in a different direction. And in certain situations, for certain individuals, nudging the system is way more important.

Not the exactly the same topic, but highly relevant: https://www.thedriftmag.com/the-bad-patient/

Robert Barlowwrites:

The Medical Model exactly as stated (with the “you must stigmatize people with disabilities” part included) was hugely historically popular, and calling it a straw man is only true insofar as the real people who believed it have (mostly) died off. Although it wasn’t called the “medical model” at the time, that set of beliefs was the grounding for the eugenics movement and played a huge role in historical abuses of disabled people. I think Deafness is a really good example of this. The oral education of Deaf people imposed on them by hearing doctors didn’t work, because there WAS no medical remedy for deafness at the time. The Cochlear implant is relatively recent, and it’s not a flawless solution. In the place of the actual practice of medicine was inhumane education, which determined the worth of a Deaf person by how well they could learn how to speak, as opposed to recognizing sign language as an actual valid language with a grammar and so on. This is the ideal example of the social model versus the medical model - Deaf people were never “incapable” of speech, rather, hearing educators at the time, influenced by Alexander Graham Bell’s theories of eugenics, were incapable of recognizing that the Deaf were perfectly proficient in sign language. A medical inadequacy, solved by a social solution.

I agree with you that 1) this dichotomy is outdated and doesn’t correspond to modern beliefs very well and 2) that we could stand to be less skeptical of medical interventions that do work, especially with regards to mental health. Nevertheless, I think there are circumstances where the parable of the social model versus the medical model is incredibly valuable. Specifically, the circumstance when someone suggests the most humane medical intervention for a disability is to sterilize the affected population to prevent them from perpetuating their inadequacy.


I think you are slightly misunderstanding the LITERAL interpretation of social model.

It says not to treat disabilities medically, but it also separates disability and impairment, and doesn’t say anything against impairment being medically treat, just disabilities.

So wanting to cure the impairment of blindness is more like wanting surgery to implant magnets in your hands so you have a sense of electromagnetic fields around (which I’m definitely in favour of, the more senses the better)

But curing the disability of blindness should be done socially, like designing cars & their infrastructure so that they can be safely driven by the blind

You say NASA building spaceships for the sighted only didn’t deprive the blind, but I disagree, if most everyone in society was blind, we’d still want to go to space and spaceships would’ve been built with the blind in mind, and the blind were deprived of the opportunity of living in a more blind compatible society

Also you bring up the example of a blind person being disadvantaged on a desert island, but it’s not like there aren’t natural environments where blindness is advantaged, hence why blindness has evolved more times than sightedness has (though blindness is easier to evolve than sightedness)

Sara Tasker (blog) writes:

I didn’t ever understand this until I became disabled myself. I had to leave my clinical NHS job because I was unable to work a conventional job - 9-5, office-based, with a commute. This was pre-pandemic and there were few alternative options. My employer (understandably) told me they could not accommodate my level of disability that meant I would need shorter days and time spent lying down. Nobody could. I was facing a lifelong dependency on disability benefits.

Instead I launched my own business and within a year had a wildly successful, multi-six figure enterprise. From my bed. With exactly the same level of disability as before. In a world where we’re used to measuring worth and value via financial contributions, it was wild to go from “you can no longer contribute to society” to “you’re now a top 1% earner and the BBC keep phoning you up”.

But my body was never the issue; the conventions and infrastructure were.

If every human was born with the same level of physical ability that I now live with, everything would be shaped differently and it wouldn’t be a handicap. As a statistical outlier, I of course accept that the world isn’t built like that. But suddenly you start to realise that it’s not really the abilities and limitations of anyone’s specific body that define what they can do in the world. It’s the level of accessibility and our adherence to conventions and ‘one size fits all’ structures that define who does and does not get to participate.

At least two people wrote their own blog posts responding to me. Obviously these are longer and I can only quote excerpts, so read the whole thing to make sure I’m being fair. Demogorgon wroteContra Contra Scott Alexander On The Social Model Of Disability:

In the essay, Oliver likens the social model to a hammer, i.e. a blunt tool for hitting things. Specifically, he criticizes his fellow academics for sitting around taking the social model seriously as a theoretical concept. He thought that, as a blunt political tool, the social model should be used for what it’s good at: making political change and winning political battles.

I want to take a step back here to talk about types of truth claims. Not all truth claims are literal truth claims. Besides literal, you’ve got:

  • Religious: “God made creation in seven days.”

  • Political: “We lost Vietnam because liberals didn’t have the stomach for it.”

  • Poetical: I never ran way to the Rainy River. I wanted to—badly—but I didn’t.

That said, a lot of people really struggle with types of truth claims. Many people—I know this is hard to beleive—literally think the world was created in seven calendar days. (And, no, that’s not all Christians, Catholic doctrine takes it as a metaphor.) A lot of people, maybe even most, take political claims and slogans as literally true. Most can’t even be literally true, because they’re so abstract and high level that they can’t be evaluated for truth. But that doesn’t stop people from failing to make that distinction. Tim O’Brien pissed a lot of people off by writing stories that, in their opinion, simply weren’t true. And there are many disciples of the social model who don’t get that it’s a political tool. That probably suggests it’s working as a political tool, since it’s clearly sticky, memetic, and simple enough to get inside people’s heads.

Finally, I’ll wrap by revisiting the practicality here from a disabled perspective. The social model is totally useful as a political tool, because a common default is to figure that disabled people are on their own and there’s nothing that can be done. Sometimes that’s true, you’re probably not going to figure out a way to get a deaf-blind person to play MLB baseball with better infrastructure. But maybe you can make fewer people laugh when the Paraolympic Games comes up in conversation, or make people build big websites with standards so they work with braille. People tend to give up too early and just want disabled people to go away. To the extent that that’s not true (it sure as hell was in 1967), it’s because people were hit with the social model hammer. That’s how we got stuff like the Americans with Disabilities Act in the ’90s.

I think I’m pretty against this. You’re allowed to make political claims in the sense of “I support John for President” or religious claims of the sort “The holy book resonates with me”, but once your claims take the form of truth claims, they’re at the very least motte/baileys and probably something worse. So if some guy says “I think Trump should have won in 2020”, that’s the kind of opinion you are completely allowed to have in a democracy. But if someone says “Trump did win in 2020 and there was election fraud”, it seems important to point out if this is literally false. If he retreats to “I’m just saying I think Trump is good, it’s a political claim, without a truth value, then you should tell him to stick to more explicitly political and non-truth-value-bearing claims phrased like “I think Trump should have won”. If you go around saying statements that sound like truth-claims, it’s a fair move to debate whether those truth claims are false!

I feel the same way about “the world was created in seven days”. And I feel the same way about people trying to metaphor their way around my weird beliefs - when I say I’m afraid of the world being destroyed by superintelligent AI, I don’t mean that as a metaphor for the complexity of modern technological life, I don’t mean that capitalism or bureaucracy is like a superintelligence, I mean I’m actually afraid of the world being destroyed by superintelligent AI! I’m a grown adult and I know how to say the specific things I mean!

Meme where the "this is fine" dog talks about how fire is a metaphor while his house is on fire.(source)

And on Less Wrong, DirectedEvolution posted another **Contra Contra The Social Model Of Disability. **Their summary:

The Social Model is similar but not quite the same as “Interactionism with a moral thrust,” and it’s relevant because some people actually do believe the outdated “Medical Model” of disability, which is appropriately labeled.

Scott Alexander’s recent article is arguing against a straw or weakman, probably the product of his hasty misreading.

Charity, steelman, call it what you will, it’s a good heuristic to assume that if your take is “why would anybody believe this,” you should carefully check if maybe, just maybe, you’ve misunderstood something. That goes double if the people you are so loudly disagreeing with are the exact sort of people you’d expect to have a very thoughtful stance on the subject.

Rationalists like to coin new terms (or, as rationalists say, come up with “concept handles). Others redefine and thereby distinguish pairs of synonyms, like “impairment” and “disabled,” by attaching more specific definitions to them. I think this leads to expectations mismatch and confusion when rationalists read writings by other activists and vice versa.

I think “this is a strawman” is the mirror complaint of “the other side keeps motte-and-baileying this”, which is certainly the complaint I made in my original post.

DirectedEvolution thinks I am eliding the fact that the Social Model distinguishes between “impairment” and “disability”, and that most of its apparently absurd implications only apply if you confuse the standard use of disability with the social-model use.

I think I am not doing this - I used the word “impairment” 11 times in my article and tried to explain how the social model uses it. My claim is that the social model’s distinction between impairment and disability, if used consistently, doesn’t back its claims - impairments can be bad separate from social responses to them. But separately, the social model tries to force us into a non-natural framing in order to strategically equivocate between their (new) meaning of the word “disability” and our (old) connotations with it. “disability = impairment + social response” is the same kind of sleight-of-hand as “racism = prejudice + power”. You start with a word everyone universally uses to mean a bad thing, you say “what if we force you to use a new word for the common-sense definition of the term, restrict the word you already have strong connotations with to a new definition, then say by definition you’re only allowed to feel bad about the bad thing if you do so in the way we approve of.” This is an annoying game, and I decline to play it.

2: Comments About The Social Model Being Used (Or Not) In Real Life

Several people questioned whether anyone uses this model in real life; here were some responses


It’s used extensively in disability rights. This is an area I have a lot of experience with, and in that (admittedly anecdotal) experience, I’d say most people don’t really believe it, but find it useful as a way to get people to think more intelligently about the interaction between accommodation and people’s innate conditions when we describe someone’s disabilities. That said, there is a more radical core group who absolutely believe the claims in the strongest sense and they tend to be those most apt to throw out charges of bigotry, so it becomes necessary to dance around the subject.


The most extreme example I can think of is a social worker I know vociferously arguing that someone’s tendency towards physical aggression towards roommates was just a “different way of being” that we needed to find better ways to accommodate rather than seek to modify. Given that offering plans for behavior modification was my role on the support team, this put us at opposed positions, and it became necessary for me to find professional and sophisticated ways of saying, “What the hell?” in emails.

Alan Smith (blog) writes:

Without going into details, I have two examples.

First, I used to work at a large corporate job (as in, the job was at a large corporation, not a large job) which involved a lot of contact with people with various disabilities, especially hearing disabilities. Late last year, as part of our training (about a half-day out of a 10 day program, so ~5% of the time) was spent uncritically going through this model, presenting it as the only correct/compassionate model. Most of my other trainees there were not especially well educated, so for them this was the only education they’ve received on the topic. Anecdotally, most seemed to swallow it uncritically. (The culture at that workplace was such that pushing back even a little bit would have gotten me fired, or at minimum in deep trouble.)

Second, a few days ago I was at a methodology workshop at a university (back to my studies), and the first speaker ostensibly talked about different ways to engage with participants/gather data that don’t involve traditional language-dependent measures, like interviews or surveys. This speaker took up the morning slot, so ~2 hours of an 8-hour day of a three-day workshop (although I skipped the next two), so ~10% of the total time. They uncritically repeated this model, which based on comments and discussion was treated as not only valid, but again, obviously true and the only way of looking at things. These people were either PhD students or working academics in a range of fields from psychology to design to law to business.

That isn’t direct, concrete consequences, but if both average people are being taught this stuff, and academics are actively swallowing/repeating it, that seems plausible to lead to said consequences?


there’s a chunk of the deaf community who very much hold that the social model is right and are (literally) violently opposed to things like other deaf people getting cochlear implants and see it as a kind of betrayal of the community combined with steps towards society forcing all deaf people to get implants instead of providing services like translations, interpreters etc

I became more familiar with this because an organisation I’m a member of that ran some small classes and events agreed to let a local deaf group use out rooms for some of their events. We eventually had to break off the arrangement because they were too hostile to one of our long term members who had a cochlear implant.

The deaf community is certainly a good example of disabled people having opinions that abled people find strange and even abhorrent, but I don’t know how much to blame the Social Model - my impression is they were like this before the Social Model was invented. I agree the Social Model makes things like this easier to defend. Beowulf888 talks more about the deaf community’s perspective here.

Pride Jia (blog) writes:

I was taught the social model in a disabilities studies class that I took last fall semester in college. I’m not sure how it is taught in other courses/activist groups but I remember that it was largely used to critique capitalism and the emphasis on productivity and labor. The idea was that if it wasn’t for society’s unhealthy emphasis for production and labor, there would be no such thing as disability, as disabled only meant so in the context of being less productive. I think the social model serves as one of the intuitive and easy ways to support current negative attitudes on capitalism in college campuses.


In the article linked below, student activists explain how they learned to use the “social model” to force university administrators to give in to their demands on campus. When asking nicely didn’t work, accusing the administrators of prejudice akin to racial prejudice helped them force administrators to give in. The students also call it the “minority model” in which they “reframe…disabled people as an oppressed minority.” https://library.osu.edu/ojs/index.php/dsq/article/view/4253/3593

Adesh Thapliyalwrites:

I, like a lot of disabled people, agree with Scott’s arguments and conclusions here. But Scott’s characterization of the Social Model’s supposed omnipresence within contemporary discourse jibes with my own experiences.

From my own observations of the subject in academia, I believe the Social Model is currently something of a bête noire among disability researchers, and has been for quite some time. I have not seen a recent disability studies paper for cite it without immediately disclaiming, qualifying, or justifying it. Entire branches of contemporary Disability Studies, like Critical Disability Theory or Disability Justice, define themselves in opposition to it. Its chapter in the introductory text The Disability Studies Reader (Ed. Davis) is mostly a long criticism of it, ending on this damning claim that “the Social Model has now become a barrier to further progress.” These are not signs of a popular, dominant paradigm, to say the least.

The problematic separation between “impairments” and “disabilities” have been roundly criticized in disabled circles since the early ‘90s, as a more diverse cohort of activists (the members of the UPIAS were mostly mobility/physically disabled) pointed out that some impairments, like chronic illness, are going to inhibit full participation from society even without any externally imposed barriers. Even the strongest recent argument I’ve seen for a full-fledged Social Model (Mike Oliver’s “The Social Model in Action: if I had a hammer,” available online here https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/library/author/oliver.mike/) has to concede that the Social Model isn’t a model, isn’t even a coherent theory of disability, but a useful “practical tool” for eliciting political concessions (as another example of his pragmatistic view of the model, Oliver notes that medical and rehabilitative interventions in the lives of disabled people are still useful).

Scott is right, however, to point out that popular discussion of disability has really stuck on to the Social Model past its shelf life; the American Psychological Association and UCSF badly need to update those pages. While medical organizations should not uncritically cite the social model without emendation, the activist orgs Scott cites I assume are drawing from Oliver’s perspective, and foregrounding the Social Model as a beginner-friendly training wheel into larger debates about Disability. Such a method isn’t without precedence, one can think of how LGBTQ groups still talk about how “sex/gender is to nature/culture” eons after feminist academics have jettisoned that maxim. I think any arguments against this practice among activist groups needs to take place on rhetorical grounds rather than rational ones.

3: Other Comments

I had suggested “biopsychosocial model” as a bucket for the standard interactionist model that makes the most sense and everyone seems likely to converge on. But other people have gotten there first and are using it in bad ways:

Michelle Taylorwrites:

The biopsychosocial model has a bad reputation in disability activism circles because it is regularly used to tell disabled people that their problems are all their own fault and should be fixed with the power of positive thinking rather than, say, painkillers, or that all disabled people could work if they tried hard and believed in themselves. Especially in the UK where the phrase has been used extensively by the DWP to deny a lot of people disability benefits on the grounds that their impairments are theoretically within their gift to overcome.

The social model as actually practiced by the disability rights movement sees availability of medical interventions as an important variety of social accommodation for impairments - but the emphasis is on the person with the impairment wanting the intervention, rather than society wanting the intervention to make the person more convenient. (A standard example of treatment to make someone more convenient rather than actually being what the person wants to happen is ABA for autism, but there are equivalents for physical impairments like the historical ‘pillow angel’ horror.) […]

The place this is mostly evidently a problem is chronic pain treatment, especially in light of the opioid crisis - a lot of people have had their painkillers taken away and replaced with platitudes and cognitive behaviour therapy, and the biopsychosocial model is regularly cited in defence of this. The biopsychosocial model regularly gets sold as a cost-effective way of treating pain, and people in constant pain generally hate to be told they’re getting a treatment they consider less effective because it’s cost-effective, regardless of whether it’s actually a good treatment or not…

I thought the big difference between the Biopsychosocial Model and the Social Model was that it included biological treatments (like medicine). But it sounds like some people in the field of chronic pain have focused on the “psycho-” part and are using it to insist on therapy and prevent people from getting their chronic pain medications.

Harold Wilsonwrites:

After an admittedly brief internet skim of the topic, a somewhat notable absence from this post may be Mike Oliver, who seems to have to coined the term ‘social model’ and whose work, Wikipedia tells me at least, so make of this what you will, was ‘widely cited as a major moment in the adoption of this model’, and a 1990 paper of his on the topic paints a fairly different picture to the one you offer us from Mr Finkelstein (he does credit UPIAS’s ideas for forming the basis of the model, but seems to have engaged in a bit of sanewashing).

He certainly doesn’t reject treating ‘the person’ as a crucial element of alleviating disability, but he conceives of the role of doctors as primarily being to tackle illness, which will in turn resolve the ‘disabling effects’ brought on by that illness. Moreover, he does seem to basically subscribe to the ‘all models are wrong…’ dictum;

‘The only escape for all concerned is to jointly work on the problems of disability within the parameters of the social model which while it does not guarantee a cure, nevertheless offers the possibility of developing a more fruitful relationship between doctors and disabled people’

While he does clearly view the social model as superior to (at the time) existing models, it also seems that he doesn’t view it as containing some undeniable truth about society and disability, but rather a way of thinking about disability that would facilitate a better response from doctors, policymakers et al.

This is why I don’t think the desert island analogy really contributes anything; the social model, at least to Oliver, seems to be a tool for describing disability as it exists now in society and for making resultant policy decisions - hence why his earliest (I think?) work to reference the model, ‘Social Work With Disabled People’ (1983), was orientated towards welfare/social work policymaking and social work practice. From the book;

‘Disability is neither an individual misfortune nor a social problem… [it] is thus a relationship between individual impairment and social restrictions imposed by social organisation’.

This definition of disability, and his social model that accompanies it, thus simply seeks to distinguish between the fact of the ‘impairment’ and how that impairment manifests itself under our current system of social organisation. Either way, given Oliver’s apparent influence, he seems an important counter-example to;

‘The Social Model goes on to say that it’s only okay to treat disability with accommodation, not with medical cures (if you’re going to object that it doesn’t say this, please read the quoted statements from proponents above).’

Insofar as he agrees with this characterisation of his social model, it’s only because he conceives of medical treatment as working through the intervening stage of treating ‘impairment’, which in turn can alleviate disability.

Separately, some of your quotes from proponents of the social model seem a bit weak? Especially from the first of the second set of quotes, from ‘The Social Model Explained’;

‘But for many, the main disadvantage of living with a disability is less about their own body and more about society’s response to them’

‘Many’? ‘Less’ and ‘more’? Seems much less than an absolute declaration that all disability is societal in origin, no?

Thanks. I had looked up the history of the Social Model and gotten the alternate origin story from Finkelstein, but I agree Oliver’s framing makes more sense.

Steve Sailerwrites:

Left-handedness was much discriminated against in the past. For example, Ronald Reagan was a natural lefty who was brought up to write righthanded. But then discrimination against left-handers greatly declined in the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if the immense popularity of lefthanded baseball heroes like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth changed American attitudes. For example, in the 1992 Presidential debate, all three candidates (Clinton, Bush, and Perot) took notes lefthanded.

Interestingly, the media has virtually no interest in rehashing this history of intolerance followed by lefthander liberation compared to, say, Asian-American Pacific Islander History Month.

And current examples of disparate impact discrimination against lefthanders elicit almost zero interest. For example, while in general baseball has been very very good to lefthanders, there hasn’t been a left-handed catcher in the big leagues since 1989. Nobody seems able to agree on why not, other than that there must be some excellent reason and it can’t just be prejudice and discrimination.

I hadn’t thought about the first part of this and it’s really interesting! This does seem to be a “civil rights victory” that we’ve almost forgotten about and have no interest in pursuing further. I suppose the boring real explanation is that left-handers were never that discriminated again and there’s no left-hander genocide or anything to memorialize.

Some people tried calculating the cost of a literal wheelchair ramp up Everest, for example[demost here](https://substack.com/profile/25950688-demost):

The Karakorum highway of 800km goes up to 4.7km and costs 10 billions. Let’s say the Mount Everest Wheelchair Lane needs to cover 4km altitude at a 1:12 ratio, that’s roughly 50km, so a factor of 20 shorter. The altitude will make construction a lot more ambitious, but the MEWL can be much smaller than a highway, which cancels some of the difficulty. My very wild guess would be that it ends up at most twice as expensive per km, which brings us to 1 billion in total. Perhaps even less.

Not so expensive after all. Though the cost for snow clearance will be a nightmare. Much easier and cheaper to build a tunnel+elevator.

Lapsed Pacifist hasa more all-things-considered estimate:

Transportation costs will be much much higher, as there are few improved roads that even get close to your starting point. There is no open ground to base your road on, you have to defrost the whole thing as you go, I guess, and keep it open while you build. As you remove the snow and ice, the soil will rebound and need to be constantly stabilized. You have a very small time window every year to work in, so you need to start and stop building over a period of years, with repairs to your existing structure and whatever routes your are using to transport all your materials. BTW, these routes will mostly be built brand new for this project because they don’t exist now, and they will need to be of a large size to bear the weight of all your equipment. You will need to house all your workers, providing every need since Everest is so far from any city capable of providing these needs. You need to buy the land from Nepal, or the official landowners. Since Everest is something of a natural attraction, and you are forever despoiling it, I imagine that will be costly. The final tens of kilometers will be at extremely high altitude, you will need special engines for all your construction equipment, which will probably have to be specially designed and built, making them probably an order of magnitude more expensive.

This is just of the top of my head. 1 Trillion sounds about right.

Peter Gerdes (blog) writes:

I’ve long wondered if it wouldn’t make more sense to simply offer some disabled individuals large sums of cash rather than ask people constructing buildings etc to accommodate them. Obviously wouldn’t make sense for the common easy to accommodate cases and it would have to be enough to account for the harms resulting from potential lack of community/etc but at the very least it seems to me that we should ask the disabled if they’d prefer yearly/lump sum cash payments whose NPV is less than the NPV cost of accomodations.

Unfortunately, the really weird fact that we somehow don’t understand laws that demand buisnesses lay out money as a tax means it’s not a real option. Still, I think considering this in extreme hypothetical scenarios demonstrates the claim that it should always be society who offers an direct accomodation can’t possibly be correct.

I think this is a useful comment in that it highlights an important crux.

A primary motivation of the people who framed the Social Model of Disability was to be against asking for charity. Allan’s comment mentions the “charity model of disability” and although I hadn’t heard that specific term it’s certainly evocative. Feeling like you’re asking people for handouts your whole life is a tough situation!

Peter, as a good economically-minded person, counters by asking - aren’t things like wheelchair ramps and state-funded sign language interpreters basically just charity, but worse? The state is spending some amount of money to help you, wouldn’t it be better if they just gave you the money directly and you chose how to help yourself?

One counterargument is that no, you could not - it’s hard to convert your personal money in your bank account to wheelchair ramps on the buildings you want to access.

But I think a more important counterargument is that the Social Model of Disability is trying to do an economically-less-efficient but psychologically-better thing. A hostile observer could call it laundering charity - trying to give charity to the disabled in a way such that it doesn’t look like charity and they don’t have to face the indignity of being charity recipients. But this suggests the people involved are being fooled, or insufficiently self-aware, which I think is false. I think they know they’re being given money, but the Social Model is transmuting it into something like reparations - society inherently owes them these things for its persecution (or in order to avoid being guilty of persecution) and so there’s no indignity involved. The role of being Martin Luther King standing up for your civil rights (which happen to involve money being spent on you) is more pleasant than the role of welfare recipient. The Social Model presents the alternative frame that gives disabled people that role.

I appreciate this psychological benefit, but I also think that the literal meaning of the Social Model is false, and that people need to learn to take joy in things other than re-enacting the 60s civil rights struggle.

Summary / What I Learned

I learned that “biopsychosocial model” is a potentially laden term because of its misuses in chronic pain, but I don’t immediately have a better one.

I learned that there are threads of genesis for the Social Model besides the Finkelstein one I talked about, and some of them seem to have anticipated my concerns.

I became more aware of the fact that it’s hard to define “disabled” in a sense where things we consider abled (eg hearing) wouldn’t be disabilities in some other society. I was already aware that it’s basically impossible to define any word and all common-sense claims have giant unsolvable philosophical holes, so this isn’t bringing my entire worldview down or anything. And I think if I cared enough I could justify the way we’re currently using it and its implications, at least as much as anyone can ever justify anything. But I appreciate it as a mildly complicating factor.

I became more aware that some people think “Yes, this is false, but you don’t seem to understand that we’re using this false thing as propaganda” is some kind of extenuating factor that makes it okay. I’m against this, but I understand there’s lots of very convincing-sounding propaganda arguing I should be for it.

I became more aware that Disability Studies is very complicated and has moved beyond the Social Model in some ways, which mainstream institutions have yet to catch up to.

I didn’t change my overall opinion on this topic.